The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved two new members of the Board of Police Commissioners, completing a nearly entire turnover of the body responsible for overseeing the police department.
While the council easily approved Thomasina Hassler’s nomination to the five-person panel, there was more dissension over Dr. Laurie Punch’s appointment.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page nominated Hassler and Punch earlier this month. The move came after a jury awarded Sgt. Keith Wildhaber nearly $20 million in a discrimination lawsuit — a decision that prompted Page to overhaul a board filled with appointees on expired terms. Council members approved William Ray Price and Michelle Schwerin to serve three-year terms on the board several weeks ago.
Hassler was approved unanimously, while the council voted 4-3 to back Punch. The council’s three Republicans, Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas, voted against Punch’s nomination.
Social media posts draw criticism
Punch faced sharp questions about her social media posts. Fitch noted that Punch wrote that “criminal justice and health care don’t just need to be reformed, they must be dismantled and replaced by structures and systems that promote freedom and equity. Sledgehammer anyone?”
Fitch went onto say that Punch included a New York Times article in the social media post entitled “Police Can’t Solve The Problem, They Are The Problem.”
“I think that the statements I made were about the structures and systems in which people like me and police officers work,” Punch said. “I was not referring to individual human beings. I was referring to the systems that do not move us toward equity and justice. There’s injustice intrinsic in the history and in the practice of health care. And I was finding a metaphor and power in that statement when focused on criminal justice.”
Punch added that the word “dismantle” has been used to describe the idea that health care and criminal justice “just can’t simply be politely modified, but they need to be dismantled and reformed in a way that promotes and centers on equity.”
“Sometimes things do have to break in order to move. I have to cut before I cure in surgery,” Punch said. “So I actually do think sometimes things have to change. Now, you do that with respect, with listening, and most of all, centered on equity with love. And I think when you do it that way, the wild thing is everyone moves forward together.”
Joe Patterson, the executive director of St. Louis County Police Officers Association, said Punch is “probably the most impressive individual that we’ve ever had as a county police commissioner just based on her professional accolades.” But he added he wasn’t convinced Punch would be unbiased toward police.
“There is not anything anyone, including Dr. Punch, could do to convince me she is not biased,” Patterson said.
Punch is an associate director of surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. The Ferguson resident helped create Stop the Bleed STL, a collaborative of health professionals seeking to reduce violence and trauma throughout the region.
“One of the things that was very interesting to me was the board is in charge of the training the police will have. And I’m an educator. That is my identity professionally,” Punch said. “And so, I’ve learned a lot about how to teach, train and educate not just intellectually in a lecture hall — but in real-life experiences in a way that’s honestly transformative.”
Hassler is an associate professor at Harris-Stowe State University and a scholar in residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She also serves as the director of Social Justice Ministry at West Side Missionary Baptist Church.
The Black Jack resident will be the only member of the board who lives in a municipality that the St. Louis County Police Department patrols.
“I think I can bring a fresh look at how business has been conducted and how decisions have been made,” Hassler said. “I think there needs to be a look at how the police interact with the community, and how we can make that better.”
As he did when he questioned Price and Schwerin, Fitch asked Hassler and Punch about whether they would move to fire Police Chief Jon Belmar in the wake of the Wildhaber verdict. Hassler responded that was “premature, in that I’m just getting into this process.”
“I want to come in objectively,” Hassler said. “I want to come in and learn the system before I could reasonably make a decision like that or make a statement like that.”
Punch added: “I’m here to serve. Replacing the police chief is not something as an individual anybody on the board can do. It’s a group decision.
“And it’s got to be one informed by police procedure and historic fact that I don’t have access to right now,” Punch said. “So I can in no way say that I have any plans, thoughts or goals in that area.”
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