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A battle over police responsibility rages in St. Louis

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Three St. Louis police associations have filed a lawsuit to prevent the city from expanding civilian oversight of their police station.

Last month Mayor Tishaura Jones signed into law a bill that strengthens the city’s two existing agencies — the Civilian Oversight Board and the Detention Facility Oversight Board — and moves them into a Division of Civilian Oversight, a larger entity within the state’s Department of Public Security. The new department will give supervisory officials access to complaints of use of force and misconduct, independent investigation of misconduct claims, and the director’s authority to punish law enforcement officers.

“By bringing the public back into public safety, we are creating an environment where all members of the community work towards long-term responsibility and safer neighborhoods,” Jones said. during a press conference before signing the bill earlier this month. “If you’re a good officer focused on serving the community, you have nothing to worry about.”

Local police groups say it’s not that simple. In their lawsuit, the Ethical Society of Police, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association and the St. Louis Police Leadership Organization requested a ban prohibition to prevent the law from coming into force. Their complaint? The new legislation gives the civilian-led administration too much power to discipline the police, which would eventually push the officers out of the force and increase the crime rate.

“We already have a terrible situation with the recruitment and retention of police officers. Police officers are being stressed that… they will be targeted by anti-police groups,” Sherrie Hall, attorney for the Ethical Society of Police, told NBC News.

The mayor’s office said it could not comment on pending lawsuits. Representatives for and against the measure met at a hearing on Wednesday, but Circuit Court judge Jason Sengheiser did not rule on the matter.

Such resistance is common but, despite the opposition, civilian oversight is already at work across the country. There were about 200 supervisory entities in the US before 2020, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. And in November 2020, following a series of police brutality protests across the country, at least 10 cities and counties approved civilian surveillance measures, according to a report from the Lawfare Institute and the Brookings Institution.

One of those cities was Columbus, Ohio, that year adopted a measure to establish a civilian-led council that would launch investigations into police misconduct and recommend disciplinary action. Until then, Columbus was the largest city without a review board, according to city council president Shannon Hardin said at the timeand voters overwhelmingly supported the measure at 74%.

Similar measures have been adopted elsewhere, such as in San Diego, which replaced the community rating board with a Police Practices Commission to review complaints of misconduct and disciplinary action. An initiative was taken in Philadelphia to Citizens’ Police Surveillance Commissionwith the power to issue subpoenas and review police policy.


“The more power and authority the agency gets, the more likely there will be opposition from the police.”

— Richard Rosenthal, Pasadenia Independent Police Auditor, California Community Police Oversight Commission

The St. Louis measure grants its new oversight body the authority of many cities and provinces have fought in vain for. City officials commented in their response to the police groups’ lawsuit that the groups cannot accurately estimate the alleged damage the bill will cause before it goes into effect. City officials also said failing to implement the law would wreak havoc on the city.

Hall replied, “We know we’ve already had damage. People are leaving power over it and we are already understaffed.” A spokesman for the St. Louis Police Department could not confirm the claim, and the St. Louis City Department of Personnel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

History has shown that where there are attempts to improve police accountability, there is often backlash from law enforcement agencies. The Newark Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 12 famously attempted to block a 2016 ordinance that gave the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board the power to obtain internal police records and the power to investigate officers. The Supreme Court of the State eventually stripped the entity of subpoena power.

“The more power and authority the agency gains, the more likely it is that there will be opposition from the police,” said Richard Rosenthal, who was the independent observer of Denver’s regulatory agency from 2005 to 2011. now Pasadena’s independent police auditor, the California Community Police Oversight Commission.

Police surveillance is nothing new

Police surveillance in one form or another has existed in the US since the 1800s, but the first modern civilian review committee was established in Washington, DC, in 1948, in response to the police’s use of force on black people, according to reports from both NACOLE and others police surveillance experts. Historically, the country’s civilian review committees have faced fierce police opposition, lack of resources and limited power, and as a result have struggled to reduce police brutality and increase accountability, according to reports. The number of such signs has slowly risen in recent decades, but started skyrocketing after 2010, the reports show. Today, almost all major U.S. cities have some sort of oversight body, usually under one of three models: inquiry-based, monitor-based, or assessment-based, with the assessment-focused model being the most prevalent in the country, according to to a NACOLE report.

It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of councils in general when their powers vary so widely from place to place. But some agencies have ceased to be models of success.

Rosenthal called the Denver bureau the “gold standard” of civilian oversight. In 2004, the city replaced its civil commission with an independent monitor, and the new entity boasted of community collaboration and new leadership. This proved crucial for the agency, which was then able to: uncovering faulty police discipline and create a new system for identifying officers accused of misconduct, Rosenthal said.

New Orleans’ Office of the Independent Police Monitor has also had success, according to Stella Cziment, the acting independent police monitor. The office helped set up the New Orleans Police Department’s Use of Force Review Board, which, among other things, requires officers to release their body camera footage of shootings within 10 days.

“We have certainly influenced and helped reduce the number of shootings and the use of force by officers. Shootings involving officers are less likely to happen and when they do happen, they abide by policy and the law,” Cziment said. The number of shootings involving officers has fallen dramatically, from 20 in 2012 to nine in 2020. a report from 2020 from the office. The number of cases of “serious use of force” has also fallen from 79 in 2019 to 44 in 2021, according to to an annual report.

“We are certainly doing a lot and our priorities are good. But we would like to do much more. We are a very small team and we are currently requesting additional funding to expand our team.”

As for St. Louis, John Chasnoff, a local activist who worked with city officials in 2015 on the new law and the original law establishing the city’s Civil Surveillance Board, said he expected police groups to back down against the new legislation. . He said revamping the city’s oversight entity was necessary as the existing administration did not have the power to punish officers or access actual police complaints. Activists supported the original civilian oversight council after Michael Brown’s death in 2014, but the council was not as effective as they had hoped. Police killed more than two dozen people between 2015 and 2020, but the board was unable to investigate those deaths because police “withheld nearly all complaints” it had received against the officers involved, according to a statement. research by Reveal and The Missouri Independent.

“Under the new system, we are taking over the functions of internal affairs and placing them in this new department of civil oversight. That is a big change, the investigations are led by citizens. This is a new change and the police are doubting it. I think over time, as the new division gets going, a lot of the fears will go away,” Chasnoff said.

He added that he does not believe the police groups’ lawsuit will be successful because they do not “completely understand” the new law. “And I was surprised that they filed the lawsuit on August 9, the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death,” he noted.

While some city surveillance boards boast success, others struggle to make a positive impact on the community and policing. Sharon Fairley, who headed a Chicago surveillance firm from 2015 to 2017 and is now a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, described Chicago as the “poster child for failed civil surveillance.” The city’s Independent Police Review Authority, tasked with investigating shootings involving officers, faced criticism in 2015 when footage surfaced of a cop shooting Laquan McDonald a year after the incident. Fairley said she was hired to refurbish the desk, but “its reputation was so badly tarnished at the time that it couldn’t survive and had to be replaced.” Chicago recently a milestone ordinance passed to create a new oversight committee, which has the final say on Chicago police policy.

Fairley, who studies surveillance efforts across the country, published research in 2020 that highlighted that while regulatory bodies have become commonplace in the US, tensions between politicians, police and the public persist. Fairley said it takes two things for a supervisory entity to be effective: resources and independence.

“Independence means subpoena, access to documentation. There must be direct access to the information and materials the agency needs to do its job. By resources I mean financially, humanly and technically. They need money to support the effort,” Fairley said.

“Civil surveillance is not a panacea for police misconduct,” he argued. “If law enforcement officers don’t embrace liability as a core value, there’s not much a civil regulator can do. For accountability to succeed, it must also be part of the law enforcement culture.”

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