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Civilian review board for St. Louis police clears one vote; passage expected next week

Jamala Rogers (bottom left) and John Chasnoff (bottom right) after the civilian oversight board they have championed for 30 years received initial approval on April 15, 2015
File photo | Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

Legislation that would bring more civilian oversight to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is a step closer to Mayor Francis Slay's desk.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen gave the measure creating the civilian oversight board initial approval Wednesday on a voice vote. No exact roll call was taken, though some aldermen did object.

"I was personally overwhelmed, almost moved to tears," said Jamala Rogers, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. "We've been working on this consciously since 1983. There's been many hills and valleys, but we're here at this point, and we hope we can consolidate the support that we have and move forward." 

The bill sets up a seven-person board, whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Aldermen. The board has the authority to oversee internal affairs investigations of civilian complaints, do its own internal investigations if it believes the Internal Affairs Division falls short, and recommend changes to the police department's policies.

"It's a step in the right director," said Antonio French, the sponsor. "It will provide an extra set of eyes to oversee complaints against police, and hopefully no longer leave it up to police alone to police themselves."

The ease with which the measure got first-round approval on Wednesday was surprising given the heat it had generated in the past, including a fight between supporters and opponents of the bill. No one rose to speak against the measure, though there is a second opportunity for debate on Monday, when the board will take a final vote.

At one point, French had proposed a bill that would give the review board subpoena power, but the mayor said he would veto anything with that provision. Indeed, Slay vetoed such a bill in 2006. Police officers have questioned whether the qualifications to be on the civilian review board were strict enough and expressed dissatisfaction that no one representing their interests helped draft the measure.

What's next

A final vote on the measure is scheduled for Monday, the last day of the current aldermanic session. Slay is a co-sponsor of the measure and is expected to sign it if it reaches his desk. Thirty days after that, aldermen have to submit their nominees. That process is where the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression is focusing its attention.

"Those people are going to be representing the whole city," said John Chasnoff, the coalition's other co-chair. "We need to make sure that we get quality members on that board and diverse members that reflect the whole city." He said the group will be recruiting and recommending candidates to aldermen.

The coalition will also push for legislation next session that would separate the civilian oversight board from the Department of Public Safety, which also oversees the police department, and give the board subpoena power. That would require a citywide vote and is fiercely opposed by the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

Union officials attended Wednesday's meeting, but did not make any comments afterward. The measure is almost certain to face a legal challenge from the association, though its attorney, Neil Bruntrager, said in February he would likely take a specific case to court, rather than challenge the legislation immediately.

It's not clear when the board will become operational. French, the bill's sponsor, said he expects the appointment process to take about six months. The city must also hire an executive director for the board, and members will have to adopt their own policies and procedures. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Katelyn Petrin on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

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