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St. Louis commission moves to alter disciplinary process for police officers

St. Louis commission moves to alter disciplinary process for police officers

St. Louis police

File photo of St. Louis police officers at roll call.

ST. LOUIS — A St. Louis commission is considering a significant change that would require police officers accused of misconduct to face the same disciplinary process as all other city employees.

The St. Louis Civil Service Commission — an autonomous body established by the city charter to review personnel matters, including disciplinary actions — is considering the repeal of a measure that gives police officers separate rules for discipline that police Chief John Hayden and some commission members argue have been a barrier to holding officers accountable.

Director of Personnel Richard Frank on Thursday brought before the commission a request to repeal Civil Service Rule XIX, which allows all officers facing punishment of less than a 15-day suspension to appeal the matter to a three-person “summary hearing board.”

The summary board is made up of three uniformed officers — one peer in the same rank as the officer accused of misconduct, and typically two higher-ranking officers. One member of the board and an alternate, under the terms of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, are selected by the police bargaining unit, the St. Louis Police Officers Association. Either the accused officer or the department can then appeal the summary board’s decision to the civil service commission.

“Naturally, this has allowed for officers to significantly reduce, or even negate, discipline time and time again,” a statement Thursday from the police department on behalf of Chief Hayden said. “The appeal process has proven to be very time consuming and has led to unequal discipline. For these reasons I do support the elimination of Civil Service Rule XIX.”

The statement said officers should be held to a higher standard because of their training, authority and oath to protect, but the rule gives them “an unfair advantage” over other city employees.

If the measure is repealed, all police disciplinary appeals would be decided by the Civil Service Commission, a three-member civilian body appointed by the mayor.

The commission already handles such appeals for all other city employees and for officers facing longer suspension, demotion or firing.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to hold a public hearing May 4 at 4:30 p.m. on the proposal before the members vote.

A simple majority vote by the commission would repeal the rule, which has been in place for at least six years.

Comments by commissioners Thursday show a majority already favor repeal.

Commissioner Steven Barney, a retired SSM Health Care executive, said he supports repeal, adding that he was on the commission when the rule was enacted.

”Having this different system … didn’t have, in our minds, the due process nor the integrity of the established civil service way of dealing with disciplinary matters,” Barney said, adding that police at the time the rule was adopted were uncomfortable with city disciplinary rules. “We kind of had to hold our nose.”

Commission Vice Chairman Bettye Battle-Turner also spoke in favor of a repeal.

”Police cannot police themselves,” she said. “Favoritism can be done easily here with the three members that they choose and you still would not have any kind of sense of righting a wrong that was done by an employee.”

Frank, the personnel director, told commissioners that 40% to 45% of the disciplinary hearings heard by the summary review board end in a written reprimand, including cases like violations of social media and political action policies he believes should have warranted more serious punishment.

”You have what is like a pure type of peer review today,” Frank said, adding that the summary review board can take up to three depositions.

”We see police officers who have accompanying criminal charges, who will use these depositions as basically like fishing expeditions to see what the charges are,” Frank said.

But if commissioners eliminate the rule, it probably won’t go away without a fight.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association would likely challenge the decision in court, arguing that it violates a state statute that brought the police department from state into local control in 2013, said the association’s lobbyist, Jane Dueker.

The local control statute spells out that the commission “may adopt rules and regulations appropriate for the unique operation of a police department. Such rules and regulations shall reserve exclusive authority over the disciplinary process and procedures affecting commissioned officers to the Civil Service Commission.”

Dueker argues that any repeal of the rule would violate the law by not having a separate disciplinary process for officers.

“It could put local control of the city’s police department at risk,” Dueker said. “If the chief has problems with discipline he always has the ability to appeal. If he did not do so that is on him.”

The effort to repeal the rule comes as the city and police union have stopped negotiating over a new collective bargaining contract for officers and sergeants. City officials say they’ve reached an impasse after 10 months at the table.

The civil service rule was mentioned as a barrier to accountability in the recent in-depth review of the department conducted by consultant group Teneo and funded by a group of St. Louis corporations.

Teneo determined the rule resulted in the department “tending to issue more suspensions of fewer than 15 days” so that they would go to the summary hearing board rather than the civilian commission.

“This culminates in shorter suspensions, less accountability for officers and greater potential inequality in how disciplinary issues are handled,” the Teneo report concluded.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story had an incorrect date for an upcoming public hearing. This version has been updated. 

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