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St. Louis County police chief holds news conference

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar speaks to reporters on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at police headquarters in Clayton. Belmar was joined by Roland Corvington, chairman of the board of police commissioners. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — Roland Corvington, chairman of the St. Louis County board of police commissioners, is under fire for cutting off an alleged rape victim who exceeded her two minutes to speak in the public portion of the board’s monthly meeting and telling the crying woman she would be escorted out of the meeting if she kept talking.

Two clergymen who witnessed the exchange on Sept. 11 appeared several days later before the County Council and called for Corvington and other police commissioners to be replaced. All five commissioners are serving on expired terms; Corvington’s term expired in 2012.

Stale appointments are a legacy from Steve Stenger’s tenure as county executive. Over his four-plus years in office, he generally allowed members of powerful boards and commissions to continue serving at his will after their terms expired. Now people both inside and outside of county government have been asking whether some those boards are accountable to the public — and demanding change.

Corvington, a retired special agent in charge of the FBI in St. Louis, insisted he did not act inappropriately. Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said in a text that “anyone who speaks at a public meeting has to follow the rules, but rules should always be enforced compassionately and sensitively. We hope all county boards will operate that way — now and in the future.”

Page did not directly answer the question of whether he was considering removing Corvington or other police commissioners. In remarks to the County Council on Tuesday, he noted the county had 250 people serving on expired terms and 100 vacant seats on various boards and “we must be thoughtful in the process.”

But he is increasingly pressed to make changes. This summer, County Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, called on Page to replace the entire St. Louis County Library trustee board, with each member on an expired term, because it is developing an administrative building and genealogy center in Frontenac against the city’s wishes. Now come the calls to replace police commissioners.

“I was appalled by the demeanor in which the chair spoke to a woman who was crying out for help,” the Rev. Darryl Gray, associate pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, told the council on Sept. 24. “It was appalling. Maybe, with all due respect, the chair has been chair far too long.”

The Rev. Phillip Duvall, who serves as chair of the St. Louis County Justice Services Advisory Board and has been a vocal critic of county police leadership, told the council the same night that “never have I had to witness a governmental body of a police commission silence a woman and tell her your minutes are up or I’ll have you removed from this chamber.”

In an interview on Friday, Corvington said Gray and Duvall were distorting facts to try to squeeze him out. Duvall and others have advocated for the formation of a civilian review board to investigate complaints about the county police, while the police board has maintained it already does that.

Gray told the council: “It’s time for a change in that police commission … people need to know the police commission supports the police, supervises the police, but there’s a balance between too pro-police and seemingly being anti-public.”

Corvington acknowledged that he ordered the woman to stop speaking but said “the description of my behavior is not accurate.”

The woman said she was sexually assaulted by a Brentwood police officer in December. A St. Louis County police detective investigated the case and presented evidence to a prosecutor, who in January declined to issue criminal charges. The woman then filed an internal affairs complaint with the county police alleging its investigation was sexist and biased against her. Chief Jon Belmar informed the woman in an Aug. 26 letter that he could not find evidence to support her allegations that the county police acted improperly.

Interviewed last week, the woman said she signed up to speak at the first police board meeting after Belmar closed the case because “they need to know how women are treated by that department. One in six women are raped in their lifetime. And if you are sexually assaulted once, your chance of being assaulted again goes up exponentially. (The detective) never showed an ounce of sympathy for me. He just made me feel like I was being re-victimized all over again.”

She exceeded her time

Corvington said he did nothing wrong by telling the woman her time was up. He said the woman had spoken for about double her allotted time and was at the four-minute mark. And he said that after the meeting, he instructed Belmar to make sure that someone with the department followed up to make sure she was OK.

“Those who come to address the board during the public forum are told they have been given an amount of time to speak to the board, and the same was done on that particular day,” he said. “So, she exceeded her time and she was cautioned multiple times about the fact that she exceeded the time. And she told the board we were going to listen to what she had to say, at which time I told her if she continued, I would have her escorted out.”

Another police commissioner, the Rev. Lawrence Wooten, said, “Each person is told two minutes and as I recall, this lady wanted to go on and on. … Why have rules if you’re not going to enforce them?”

About Gray and Duvall, Corvington said, “I think if you have the opportunity to review the YouTube (video of the County Council meeting), you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions. It’s very specific that they believe it’s time for me to be replaced as a member of the board.”

He encouraged a reporter to seek out others who were at the meeting, including Belmar.

Belmar said Friday that he “didn’t think there was anything wrong” with Corvington’s conduct toward the woman. “At some point, someone’s going to have to say, ‘Hey listen, I appreciate your comments, but time’s up.’”

Belmar said “the comments by the young lady were very emotional and might have been more suited to a different process than that.”

Quick meetings

The police board meets at 11:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. The meetings tend to be very short and lightly attended; this one was about 30 minutes and featured just one other speaker. The police board does not record its meetings; a Post-Dispatch reporter was not present.

The board minutes state simply that “Ms. Jane Doe expressed her frustration with how the Department has handled an investigation into a sexual assault by a Brentwood police officer. She pleaded with the Police Board to look further into the investigation.”

In contrast, the weekly County Council meetings on Tuesday nights tend to have at least a dozen speakers; at one meeting in late April there were more than 40. Speakers are reminded by the chair to wrap it up at three minutes, and usually do so within a minute, but some push further on and when a council member asks a question, the speaker’s time can go on even longer. The council also publishes a verbatim transcript of its meetings.

“It’s our responsibility to listen to people,” said County Council member Lisa Clancy, D-5th District. “We can offer guidelines to keep things on track, but I’ll be there all night if I have to if they have concerns that need to be brought to my attention.”

Clancy said it was “infuriating” that the police board shut down a rape victim.

“I think about how much courage it probably took for her to come and speak to that body in a public forum about what she was experiencing, and that’s how she was treated. It’s infuriating to me. She deserves compassion and she deserves at the very least people who will listen to her.”

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