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Two men died in crash of car chased by St. Louis County police. Activists want more civilian review

Two men died in crash of car chased by St. Louis County police. Activists want more civilian review

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY • St. Louis County police said they weren’t chasing the car that fled a vehicle stop and crashed on Aug. 10, killing two men. Days later, video footage from a nearby business showed a county police car chasing the car with lights and sirens on.

County police policy does not allow pursuits unless a felony offense has taken place. Police Chief Jon Belmar then announced he would begin an internal affairs investigation into the moments leading up to the crash, but it won’t start until the Missouri Highway Patrol completes its accident investigation.

In the six weeks that have passed, activists and family members of the dead men have appeared at County Council meetings to demand outside review of the crash and other matters when police conduct is called into question.

The episode suggests the police cannot fairly investigate themselves, they say, and the county needs an independent board to oversee allegations of police misconduct.

“In a situation like this recent car chase, there’s no confidence in the community that such an investigation will be thorough and complete,” said John Chasnoff, of University City, the co-chairman of Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression.

His group fought for 15 years to get a civilian oversight board in the city of St. Louis; it was established in 2015.

The County Council is wading into the issue. Last week, Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, asked the county’s lawyers to draft a resolution asking the county police department and all 89 municipalities in the county to post information on their websites for how to create civilian review boards.

Gray said she was responding to what her constituents wanted, and that it was “not really a matter of what I think we should or shouldn’t have.”

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-2nd District, said that “everyone right now is just listening. This is a complex issue, and I think we need to just take a minute and hear what everyone has to say.”

Board reviews files

Not so fast, the police department says. The county already has a board that investigates allegations of officer misconduct: the Board of Police Commissioners.

Its members are appointed by the county executive and approved by the County Council. On its website, the first sentence states that the board “is a civilian oversight board with five members representing the citizens of St. Louis County.”

Roland Corvington has been a member of the board since 2012 and its chairman since 2013. Former County Executive Charlie Dooley appointed him not long after Corvington retired as the local special agent in charge of the FBI.

The board’s discussion of the cases and individual outcomes are not released to the public. The board’s monthly meeting includes a closed session in which the captain overseeing the Bureau of Professional Standards reviews use-of-force cases and internal affairs matters.

The misconduct allegations that originate from officers in the department tend to outnumber civilian complaints 4-to-1. A majority of the cases result in some level of discipline, from written reprimands to an occasional termination, according to police board statistics.

“We know the importance of discipline and accountability for a police department and that’s why we ask for these briefings,” Corvington said. “I stand unique among the board because of my background. I look at things a little differently. For me, it’s not just a rubber stamp and they know it because of the things I catch or the questions I ask. I’ve been scrutinizing investigations for long time.”

The board has the authority to issue subpoenas to compel documents or testimony, but Corvington said he could remember only one time that it was used; he declined to discuss it.

“We can comment on the adequacy of the investigation if we feel a particular stone was unturned, and internal affairs will get back to us,” Corvington said. “The case files include recommendations for discipline, and if we have a comment we do or we leave it as is.”

Another Dooley appointee, the Rev. Lawrence Wooten, pastor of the William Temple Church of God in Christ, said, “I do feel comfortable that we work fairly and hold the police accountable for their actions. That’s our responsibility.”

The board also hears appeals from officers, who believe their discipline was unfair, and it has reversed the department’s disciplinary decision at least once.

Former Police Chief Tim Fitch fired Lt. Patrick “Rick” Hayes in 2013 after a sergeant accused him of ordering officers to racially profile black people near shopping centers in south St. Louis County. Hayes appealed. The board reversed Fitch’s decision and ordered the department to reinstate him at the rank of police officer.

The board also has the power to hire, fire and discipline the chief. In 2016, the board disciplined Belmar with a written reprimand after the Post-Dispatch reported that Belmar wrote a letter to a federal judge urging leniency for a drug dealer whose uncle was a former police board member and staffer of County Executive Steve Stenger.

Independent enough?

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, and an expert in police accountability, said a system in which the police board reviews the police department’s investigations may not be independent enough to ensure accountability.

The most successful review boards have independent investigators. Using only the police department’s reports, the county police board may not have enough information to gauge the quality of the internal affairs investigation.

“Did they ask the right questions? Did they look for witnesses?” he said. “Simply to read (the internal affairs file), that’s not independent investigation.”

Walker agreed with excluding the public from the misconduct investigations but suggested the board could put out a report on each case, perhaps redacting the name of the officer, with its own take on the investigation.

For example, a report could indicate “it is our belief that (internal affairs) asked leading questions to the officer involved, or didn’t do this or that. That provides high degree of transparency for the public without naming names.”

For now, relatives of the men killed in the crash wait for the outcome of an investigation to which they have no access.

Mikel Neil, 49, the driver, and Townsal Woolfolk, 59, a passenger, were killed in the crash on Aug. 10 on Airport Road. St. Louis County police said officers had tried to stop the vehicle after it sped through a red light at Dade Avenue and Airport Road, nearly a mile from the crash site, but denied there was a police pursuit.

The Universal African People’s Organization helped Neil’s brother Darryl Neil obtain video of the pursuing police car.

Activists and friends of Neil said they will continue to press for more transparent investigations of police misconduct allegations.

“We’re just asking for fairness and transparency, which seem to be failing in our community,” Queen Ziah Reddick, a member of Universal African People’s Organization, told the council last week.

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Christine Byers is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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