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6 of 7 police oversight board nominees confirmed, next steps include setting policies

Mayor Francis Slay, at podium, introduces his nominees for the cvilian oversight board. They are, from left, DeBorah Ahmed, Ciera Simril, Heather Highland, Jane Abbott-Morris, Bradley Arteaga, Steve Rovak and Lawrence Johnson.
Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio

Update with confirmation - Six of the nominees to the Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, sailed through Board of Aldermen confirmation Friday. The seventh, DeBorah Ahmed, withdrew her name from consideration.

Ahmed is an executive director at Better Family Life, which has received thousands in city money over the last decade. Her nomination had been criticized for possible conflicts of interest. This means that the mayor will have to find a new nominee for the third district, in north-central and northwest St. Louis.

Next steps include developing policies, undergoing training and hiring an executive director.

John Chasnoff, a co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, says his organization will stay involved in all those steps. "We want to make sure there is community input into the training, community participation in it, and we're looking forward to that step."

Original story - St. Louis aldermen got the chance Tuesday night to hear the public's thoughts on the nominees for the new civilian police oversight board.

Mayor Francis Slay presented the seven names to the Board of Aldermen in August. The nominees had already been questioned by the city's public safety committee, though the late-morning sessions were sparsely attended.

Attendees at Tuesday night's hearing did not get a chance to question the nominees directly, though there was a half-hour networking period before testimony began. For the most part, speakers were supportive of the nominees, but expressed concern about the structure and power of the board.

"It is clear that this process has led to people who are dedicated, who appear committed and who appear sincere in carrying out this work," said Denise Lieberman, an attorney with the Advancement Project and a co-chair of the Don't Shoot Coalition. "But we need to give them the tools to do this job."

That, she said, means giving the members the power to subpoena the documents and people they need to conduct thorough investigations, and moving the civilian oversight board out from underneath the umbrella of the public safety department, which also oversees the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. 

Failing to do so, Lieberman said, could limit the effectiveness of the civilian oversight board.

"It is crucial for our communities that continue to feel the effects of lack of accountable policing, and it’s crucial for the healing of our community that this effort succeed," she said.

John Chasnoff, a co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression and a lead negotiator of the legislation that created the civilian oversight board, said he will continue to push for additional bills that would authorize subpoena power and create a channel for independent oversight. Granting subpoena power would take a charter change that also requires a vote of the people.

"The bill will work if we work it," he said. "It's not a perfect bill. There are parts of it that are missing. But it's a workable bill that will lead to accountability in the police department."

Very few people raised specific concerns about individual candidates. Many who spoke brought up matters they believed required the attention of the civilian oversight board.

Teri Powers, an advocate with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she would have liked to see a nominee with mental health experience. 

"We are more likely to incarcerate people with mental illness than we are to provide treatment," Powers said. "And I charge that the city of St. Louis police department is negligent in applying the crisis intervention training that is provided to them by NAMI."

Kirstin Palovick with the LGBT advocacy group PROMO Missouri urged the civilian oversight board to evaluate how police treat transgender individuals, especially those of color. And Chris Rice, who works at the New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown spoke of the need to combat the harassment of homeless individuals.

But not everyone was impressed.

"I, unlike everybody that has come before me, cannot say I am ecstatic about this civilian oversight board," said Shirlissa Pruitt, a Ferguson resident and a protester. "First and foremost, it would be because the board picked by the mayor."

Pruitt said the public needed to be much more involved in the process.

"If it is for civilians, then civilians should play a big part in the choosing or at least the vetting of those that’s going to serve on that board," she said.

Dinah Tatman, the pastor of Greater New Vision Ministries in north St. Louis County, shared Pruitt's concerns. But she was most worried about nominee DeBorah Ahmed's conflict of interest.

Ahmed's husband, Malik, is the chief executive officer of Better Family Life. DeBorah Ahmed herself is also employed by the social service agency, which has received thousands of dollars in grants from the city and the state of Missouri.

"Her nomination to serve on this historic board is an epic financial conflict of interest, amounting to what I believe to be the mother of all financial conflicts of interest," Tatman said.

In her confirmation hearing, DeBorah Ahmed said her position is not funded with city money, and that she would not be influenced during investigations.

The nominees

The seven people being considered for spots on the board are:

  • District One (Wards 2, 3, 21, 27) — Ciera Simril

A 27th Ward resident, Simril has the support of Alderman Chris Carter. She interned for the St. Louis American newspaper before taking a job at U.S. Bank. She helps facilitate the Neighborhood Ownership Model for several northwest-side neighborhoods, and earned a Neighborhood Star for working as an intermediary between police and residents who were afraid to talk to them.

  • District Two (Wards 5, 6, 18, 19) — Jane Abbott-Morris

A resident of the Gate District in south St. Louis, Abbott-Morris has a background in human resources, with a focus on equal employment issues. She helped the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department develop its affirmative action plan and revise their employment discrimination policy. She is also a certified mediator.  

  • District Three (Wards 1, 4, 22, 26) — DeBorah Ahmed

Ahmed works for Better Family Life as the executive director for its Cultural, Educational and Business Center. She is also a founder of Black Dance USA, and has served in administrative roles for a variety of arts institutions. 

District Three nominee DeBorah Ahmed talks with District Seven nominee Steve Rovak after Mayor Francis Slay announced their nominations in August.
Credit Sarah Kellogg | St. Louis Public Radio
District Three nominee DeBorah Ahmed talks with District Seven nominee Steve Rovak after Mayor Francis Slay announced their nominations in August.

  • District Four (Wards 7, 8, 9, 17) — Lawrence Johnson

In his professional life, Johnson, a past president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association, worked as a hearing officer for the Illinois Department of Human Services. He was also heavily involved in a number of organizations in Springfield, Ill., including as chair of the Springfield Human Relations Commission.

  • District Five (Wards 11, 12, 13, 16) — Bradley Arteaga

Arteaga is a south-side resident who has his own photography business and owns Eddie's Donuts. He has been the president of the Southtown Business Association, the St. Louis Hill Neighborhood Association, and a board member of the Second Police District Association.

  • District Six (Wards 14, 15, 20, 25) — Heather Highland

Highland, a defense attorney, wrote on her application that she had both deposed and cross-examined police officers, and had also represented them in various legal matters. 

  • District Seven (Wards 10, 23, 24, 28) — Stephen Rovak

Rovak is a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force reserve veteran  who retired with the rank of colonel. Part of hus 30 years of service included a stint as a Judge Advocate General.
He is now an attorney at Denton's, and serves on the Washington University board that reviews all studies involving human subjects. He is also the co-chair of the mediation committee of the International Institute for Conflict Prevention and Resolution.

Next steps

The public safety committee will meet on Thursday at 10 a.m. in Room 208 at City Hall to vote on the nominees. Terry Kennedy, the chairman, expects members will consider each confirmation separately. The entire board could vote as early as Friday.

If a nominee is not confirmed, Mayor Francis Slay must name a replacement from the same district.

Once confirmed, nominees will have to complete the Citizen's Academy class offered by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department before hearing their first case. They will also have six months to complete training that includes instruction on police procedure, investigative techniques and constitutional rights.

Correction. An earlier version listed the wrong bank as Ciera Simril's employer.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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