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St. Louis aldermen seek to give proposed civilian oversight board subpoena power
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St. Louis aldermen seek to give proposed civilian oversight board subpoena power

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ST. LOUIS • A last-minute substitute bill was filed on Wednesday that would give subpoena power to the proposed civilian oversight board of police, broadening its authority to investigate complaints against city police officers.

The substitute bill, filed by sponsor Alderman Antonio French, will be debated at 10 a.m. Thursday at City Hall, setting up a showdown on the bill that was originally expected to easily pass.

Debate over the broader bill devolved into a melee at City Hall last week when protesters and off-duty police officers spoke at a rare evening public input session.

More than 15 aldermen placed their names as co-sponsors to the original bill, although support could fade with the introduction of the substitute bill. Previous efforts to create a civilian oversight board in St. Louis have languished over the years.

Some argued that the original bill was too weak and didn’t give the proposed board broad powers. City officials and aldermen spent significant time working together on the original bill, which was filed by Alderman Terry Kennedy in December. Kennedy was dropped as the lead sponsor when he was elevated to chairman of the public safety committee, giving French control of the bill.

On Wednesday, French added a clause that would give the board the power to compel testimony, among other things.

Mayor Francis Slay, who supported the original bill and made the rare step of adding his name as a co-sponsor, will veto the substitute if approved, according to Jeff Rainford, his chief of staff.

“We spent months negotiating to find the right balance that treats citizens fairly and police officers fairly,” Rainford said. “We think we found the right balance.”

Rainford said he worries officers would become hesitant to do their jobs if the board had subpoena power.

French said on Wednesday the additional power is necessary.

“At the end of the day, the Civilian Oversight Board cannot discipline any officer and can only make recommendations to the chief and the mayor,” French said. “Its only real power is in its ability to conduct independent investigations. We should try to give that limited power as much meaning as possible.”

The police officers union already was upset with the original bill, saying that officers would leave the force if approved.

The Missouri attorney general’s office said the city has the ability under its charter to empower the civilian body with such subpoena power.

The aldermanic public safety committee is expected to vote on the issue on Thursday, before it heads to the full Board of Aldermen. There will be no formal public input session.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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