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St. Louis County Council approves two new members to police board

St. Louis County Council approves two new members to police board

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CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday confirmed two appointees to the Police Board of Commissioners as part of a continuing shake-up in the wake of a nearly $20 million judgment against the county in a discrimination suit.

Dr. Laurie Punch, of Ferguson, and Thomasina Hassler, of Black Jack, will become the first African American women to serve on the county police board and also members of the first female majority in the board’s 64-year history.

Hassler’s nomination was approved by the County Council by voice vote without dissent. She is an adjunct assistant professor of social science at Harris-Stowe State University and holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in social justice from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where is a scholar-in-residence.

County Council Republicans, however, opposed Punch, an associate professor of surgery at Washington University, but she was confirmed in a 4-3 vote that split along party lines.

During a confirmation hearing earlier Tuesday, Punch faced pointed questions from Council members Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, and Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, about social media posts that the St. Louis County Police Officers Association characterized as biased against police officers. Joe Patterson, the union’s executive director, was among several speakers who urged council members to reject Punch.

Punch, whose work is focused on resident education in gun violence management and prevention, insisted her social media posts were not aimed at individual law enforcement officers, but rather about the need to make structural changes to policing.

“I was referring to the systems that do not move us toward equity and justice,” Punch said. “It’s describing the idea that health care and criminal justice cannot simply be politely modified but that they need to be dismantled and reformed in a way that promote and centers on equity.”

Hassler, as a resident of Black Jack, is the only commissioner living in an area patrolled by St. Louis County police officers. She said she is focused on building trust between police and the communities they patrol.

“I think that I can bring a fresh look at how business has been conducted and how decisions have been made,” she said. “I think there needs to be a look at how the police interact with the community and how we can make that better.”

Punch and Hassler were nominated by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page after the Oct. 25 jury verdict in favor of Sgt. Keith Wildhaber, who is gay. Wildhaber’s lawsuit alleged he was passed over for 23 promotions during Chief Jon Belmar’s administration because of discrimination.

Both Hassler and Punch are Democrats. They can take office 20 days from Tuesday after confirmation by the County Council.

Since its creation, only three women have served on the board: Patricia Rich, 1990-93, was the first, followed by Sheila Hoffmeister, 1993-2009, and Laurie Westfall, 2014-19.

The County Council on Nov. 6 unanimously confirmed William Ray Price Jr., a retired Missouri Supreme Court justice who also served on the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, and Michelle Schwerin, a lawyer and CPA, to the board. Price is a Republican and Schwerin an independent. On Monday, the board elected Price as chairman and Schwerin vice chairman.

DemocratMark Gaertner, whose term expired on Nov. 1, is the only holdover on the board. Page is interviewing candidates for his seat but isn’t expected to announce an appointee until January at the earliest.

Price and Schwerin replaced commissioners Westfall and the board’s former chairman, Roland Corvington, who resigned. Punch and Hassler replaced Art Johnson, who had been appointed by Steve Stenger, and the Rev. Lawrence Wooten, who had been appointed by Charlie Dooley.

The police board has powers including hiring and firing the chief. Although Council member Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, has called on Belmar to resign, Page has said he wants Belmar to lead the department through a period of change.

During confirmation hearings for Punch and Hassler, Fitch asked both candidates whether they were considering firing Belmar. Both said they would have no opinion on the subject until they were to join the full board, learn more about the police department and hear input from police and the community.

Fitch, a former county police chief, said after Punch’s confirmation that he remained concerned about her ability to be objective.

“I think she has this grandiose idea of how she can get in and make some huge changes,” he said. “When she gets there she’s going to find out that for the most part police officers do the right thing.”

“Are there things that need to be improved? Absolutely. But it’s not like she believes it is looking from the outside in,” Fitch said. “There are going to be times where people are going to make complaints on police officers and she’s going to look at the facts and she’s going to be in the position she’s never had to do before to defend the officer.”

In other action Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a bill eliminating a $70 booking fee and $50-per-day administrative charge to jail inmates sentenced to the county’s intermittent sentencing program.

At least 27 people had signed up to speak during public comment before the start of the meeting.

They included about three dozen employees with the department of judicial administration and family court system who called on the council to approve a 10 percent pay increase they said was overdue for staffers and would help retain and train staff and recruit more qualified candidates for open positions.

Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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