At long last, it appears that the city of St. Louis will establish a civilian review board to investigate complaints against police officers — everything from foul language and rude behavior to use of deadly force.
The new entity will be called the Civilian Oversight Board. The COB will not replace the police department’s internal review procedures. Instead it adds a separate civilian layer to the process. The COB will have no disciplinary power to enforce its findings, but rather will pass them on to the chief of police and the city’s director of public safety. The COB will meet in private and have no authority to make public the names of officers and allegations it investigates.
The COB would not meet all of the “best practices” standards established by the U.S. Department of Justice in court-monitored consent decrees with other big-city police departments, and that’s unfortunate. For example, the COB would not have its own staff of investigators but would rely on staff borrowed from the city’s public safety director.
The COB would review complaints only after they’ve been investigated by the police department’s Division of Internal Affairs or, in cases of officer-involved shootings, by the department’s new Force Investigation unit. Nor would the COB have subpoena powers; it would have to ask the public safety director and police chief to make police officers available. If an officer and the person making the complaint against him agree to have the issue settled through mediation, and the police chief agrees, then the COB complaint would go away.
One interesting footnote: The bill requires that in cases of police-involved shootings, the city will ask the Missouri attorney general to conduct or oversee the Internal Affairs Division’s inquiry into the incident. That division looks for violations of department policy. The Force Investigation Unit conducts the criminal investigation and presents its findings to the circuit attorney.
Given these restrictions on its powers and given that the police department will continue to investigate its own people, is the new COB a big deal?
It’s not a huge deal, but it’s not nothing. Call it a biggish deal, if only because there’s never before been any form of civilian review of police in St. Louis.
A bill creating the new board was introduced in the Board of Aldermen on Friday. The bill is wired like the Ameren nuclear plant in Callaway County. Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, the leading voice for civilian review for two decades, is the chief sponsor. Mayor Francis Slay, who vetoed Mr. Kennedy’s last review board bill in 2006, is fully on board this time.
Two things are different now. One, the city regained control of its police department last year after 152 years of state oversight. The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which is suspicious of civilian review, can no longer exert influence in Jefferson City to block city initiatives.
The second difference, of course, is Ferguson. In communities of color, mistrust of police has long been an issue. The police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Kajieme Powell and VonDerrit Myers Jr. in St. Louis have put pressure on police departments and politicians around the country.
If, as seems certain, the COB bill becomes law, each of its seven members will represent four of the city’s 28 wards. The aldermen from each four-ward “COB District” will submit recommendations of “citizens who can be fair and objective” to the mayor. The mayor is not bound to select the aldermen’s nominees, but the nominees will require aldermanic confirmation. Because of the lengthy legislative, nomination and confirmation processes, the COB probably won’t be seated until early next spring.
It can’t but help confidence in the police department for seven independent sets of eyes to review department findings. Though Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the Police Officers Association, foolishly called the idea “not productive” and a “disservice to the people of St. Louis,” civilian review boards in other cities tend to support police officers in most complaints.
However, there is a wide variation in how the boards operate. Because of that, there is no consensus as to their overall effectiveness.
There is, however, consensus that internal reforms of police culture result in more community support for police. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson has promised that each of his officers will undergo three days of training in what he calls “customer service,” reaffirming the department’s commitment to less confrontational police methods.
Already the St. Louis Police have put in place a “use-of-force continuum” and are monitoring officers who may have a history of difficulties, both among the best practices suggested by reform experts.
And then there’s this: Since Mr. Dotson became chief 23 months ago, 17 officers have either been fired or resigned while facing department charges for various offenses. Charges against four others currently are pending.
The city police department, with its 1,300 commissioned officers, polices only 61 square miles, but they are a very tough 61 square miles. The city has more crime, more concentrated poverty, more public events and institutions and greater challenges than the other police agencies in the region combined. It is right that citizens have a designated set of eyes to review complaints.
But there are other police agencies that need reform and review just as much, if not more. The Ferguson Police Department, currently under Justice Department review, is likely to wind up with some sort of civilian review of its 53 officers. The rest of St. Louis County needs it as well.
The St. Louis County Police, with 850 officers, answers only to a five-member Board of Police Commissioners. The county executive appoints the police commissioners, who are then confirmed by the seven-member County Council. The Police Board then chooses its chief. The avenues for direct public and political accountability are limited. That should change.
As for the 58 other police departments in the county, they range from good to abysmal.
St. Louis would be best served if the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department were, in fact, metro-wide, with civilian review and a single standard of excellence. Until then, accountability must come in small pieces. The new COB is one of them.