Lawmakers, activists fight for police oversight in St. Louis


Police in Ferguson, Mo., wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd Aug. 17 during a protest over the killing of Michael Brown. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
August 22

Greater St. Louis is one of the few metropolitan areas in the country where residents have no independent civilian oversight board to turn to when they believe local police have abused their power — something that community leaders say fueled the anger of protesters who have grown weary of law enforcement policing themselves.

“We have been one of the few holdouts, and it’s one of the reasons why Ferguson exploded,” said John Chasnoff, a member of the Coalition Against Police Crime and Repression.

Chasnoff hopes that the city of St. Louis — which, with 1,200 officers, has the largest police force in the region — will soon become the first to establish a civilian board to handle citizen complaints.

The Board of Aldermen, the city’s legislative body, may take up an oversight bill as early as next month. If signed into law, it would set up a seven-member board with a support staff and subpoena power to secure police records. As a condition of employment, police officers would be required to be interviewed by the board if they are the subject of a complaint.

A group of aldermen, Chasnoff’s group and the Organization for Black Struggle have been the driving force behind the bill and say that if the city takes this step, it may lead the way for dozens of other local departments to follow. That includes the department in Ferguson, Mo., where Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

The St. Louis jail released a list of 155 people arrested in the disturbances in Ferguson. Despite complaints that outsiders are coming to the area, four out of five of the people arrested are from Missouri, almost all from St. Louis.

“Oftentimes, smaller municipalities see what St. Louis does first,” said Alderman Terry Kennedy, who helped craft the measure. “It becomes the model, the beacon.”

Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said most large cities have such boards. His group estimates that there are more than 200 nationwide.

“There is no exact pattern for how oversight comes about, but I think a majority of oversight agencies have been created in the wake of a scandal — either a controversial use of force or a fatal shooting,” Buchner said. “Something ignites the community, but there is also typically a long-standing, underlying distrust of the police force policing itself. The community wants independent eyes and ears.”

Civilian oversight boards have their roots in the civil rights movement, with many of them established in the 1970s. The movement picked up steam again in the 1990s after the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by white officers with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Sam Walker, a national authority on civilian oversight boards, said in recent years that some cities — such as the District and New York — have moved away from the civilian board model, opting for an inspector general or an external police auditor. Walker, who has written two books on third-party police oversight, favors this model because it typically results in recommendations that can lead to systemic changes rather than being limited to a review and recommendation stemming from a complaint against a single officer.

For example, Walker said the District’s Police Complaints Board investigated complaints in 2005 from black residents who said they were being routinely stopped and fined if they had not registered their bicycles with the city. The board successfully recommended that the registration requirement be dropped.

“With civilian oversight boards, they are looking at whether an officer did something wrong,” Walker said. “But the real problem involves the people upstairs. It’s bad management. It’s a failure of policy, a failure of training, a failure of supervision — and really, the officer is a fall guy.”

Walker said police unions also tend to not fight the outside auditors. The reason: Under this model, there tends to be less focus on the conduct of individual officers, which makes it feel threatening, he said. However, Walker said, police unions continue to mount strong campaigns to kill measures that call for civilian oversight boards.

Which is what’s happening in St. Louis.

This is the second time the city’s Board of Aldermen will take up a bill to establish a civilian board. The first bill passed in 2006, but it was vetoed by Mayor Francis G. Slay (D). The mayor’s spokeswoman, Maggie Crane, said he is supportive of some type of civilian oversight but believes the earlier bill was a “bad bill” and was “anti-police.”

The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, the union that represents officers, fought the earlier effort and is opposed to the current one.

The union said the city’s Civil Service Commission already conducts independent reviews of alleged police misconduct, but Kennedy, the city alderman, and the city’s Web site say that body is tasked with handling complaints from civil service employees who believe they have been unfairly disciplined by their employers. It is not set up to handle citizen complaints against police, Kennedy said.

The union is also concerned that the board will be antagonistic toward officers and that the events in Ferguson are unfairly being used to push the bill.

“It is infuriating that a handful of militant, anti-police aldermen would capitalize on this tragedy to advance their own political agenda,” said Jeff Roorda, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, an affiliate of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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