St. Louis aldermen move forward civilian oversight board of police

ST. LOUIS • A proposal to create a civilian review board for city police, which stirred the ire of the police union on one side and protesters on the other, was approved by a committee of aldermen Monday largely unchanged from its original wording.

The bill, which calls for seven appointed civilians to review complaints against police officers, was approved by the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee after several hearings, capped by a five-hour debate Monday. In the end, it was little changed from the original measure filed in December, despite two competing bills that emerged since then — one that would have strengthened the board’s powers, the other designed to limit who could serve on it.

Some doubted the bill would ever make it out of the committee after a hearing last month ended in chaos.

The bill now moves to the full Board of Aldermen, which could debate it as early as Friday. A final vote isn’t expected until April.

Under the proposed bill, a seven-person St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board would have the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct; research and assess police policies, operations and procedures; and make findings and recommendations. It could also independently review evidence and witness statements from investigations by police internal affairs. The board would report its findings to the city’s public safety director and police chief.

Terry Kennedy, the chairman of the committee who wrote the bill after months of negotiations with aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay, plodded forward despite efforts from police and protest groups to change it in various directions. Those changes — to give the proposed board subpoena power or place stronger qualifications on those who are allowed to serve on it — threatened to thwart the bill’s approval.

St. Louis is one of the largest cities in the nation that doesn’t have some form of civilian review of police.

“I wish it went further,” said Alderman Antonio French, who had pushed for the committee to have subpoena authority.

“It’s a first step,” French said. “It creates the civilian oversight board. There will be continuing efforts to strengthen this body over the months and years to come.”

Slay, who supports the bill that the aldermanic committee approved Monday, pledged to veto the measure if it gave the proposed oversight board subpoena authority, saying it would subject officers to multiple simultaneous investigations and didn’t meet the city’s legal code.

On Monday, Slay wrote in a blog post: “A majority of the aldermen recognize that we need a Civilian Oversight Board that treats police officers fairly, treats civilians fairly, and complies with the law. I look forward to signing the original bill. It’s time.”

Aldermen moved the bill forward on the six-month anniversary of a Ferguson police officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, which set off unrest throughout the St. Louis region and sparked a vigorous debate about race and police accountability.

The resulting protest movement gave new support for instituting a civilian review board of St. Louis officers. Such review bodies became popular in the early 1970s, but St. Louis resisted.

In 2006, Slay vetoed a bill that would have created one, saying the bill included anti-police language and wouldn’t survive a legal challenge.

About two dozen protesters staged a demonstration in front of Slay’s home in south St. Louis early Monday, erecting fake tombstones in his front yard and placing a fake coffin on his front porch.

The protesters called for changes in how police shootings are investigated, including the formation of a civilian oversight board.

Neil Bruntrager, a lawyer for the St. Louis police union, appeared before the committee Monday and offered revisions mandating that aldermen require potential committee members to submit to drug testing, among other things.

Still, Bruntrager voiced support for the idea of civilian oversight.

Just as they had with French’s subpoena idea, aldermen declined to adopt most of Bruntrager’s suggestions.

They did adopt a few minor changes and wording alterations proposed by aldermen, but the bill remained substantially unchanged.

“By the time we come to the first anniversary of the Mike Brown tragedy, we need to be able to say we passed a bill,” said Jamala Rogers, a co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, who spoke before the committee on Monday.