The seven St. Louis residents charged with reviewing complaints against St. Louis city police weighed issues of access and neutrality Wednesday during the first official meeting of the Civilian Oversight Board.
While reviewing a draft of board policy, Lawrence Johnson took issue with a provision that would make the executive director the sole point of communication with police.
Such a policy, Johnson said, effectively puts a gag order on the board.
“To be absolutely candid it’s a political concern. I think the public would respond differently, and other agencies would respond differently, to a board member than to a staff member,” he said.
Johnson said he planned on forwarding requests for information through the executive director but wanted to keep open the possibility that citizens could contact board members directly.
“I understand the efficacy and the efficiency of having the executive director as the point person but I’ve not come across any provision elsewhere that says they’re the sole point of contact. And that’s what was disturbing to me," he said.
Johnson's colleague, Heather Highland, was concerned that board members interacting with the police department could introduce conflicts of interest.
“It’s the same issue I have with the complainants and witnesses," she said. "I think we should remain as removed from them as we are from the police department."
Highland was also worried that listing the email addresses of board members online or on business cards could increase the number of civilian complaints they receive directly, and in turn increase the likelihood that a board member could become prejudiced.
"I think we have to remain neutral and not make any decisions before we’ve heard anything. And if one side or the other has access to us that kind of ruins our neutrality,” Highland said.
Johnson argued that making board members' contact information public was important for transparency’s sake.
“Our primary reason to be is to make ourselves as visible as we’re willing to (be) to the public,” Johnson said.
Other board members said hearing from the public is unavoidable just being out and about in the community.
Newly elected board chair Steve Novak suggested that each board member decide individually how accessible they want to be.
The board will continue discussing the policy at its next meeting on March 28th. Executive Director Nicolle Barton said the staffing is in place for the oversight board to begin hearing cases sometime in April.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.