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In St. Louis, a battle is brewing over police accountability

The latest battle highlights a persistent problem: Police often oppose civilian oversight efforts.
Image: St. Louis Police
Police confront demonstrators protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley on Sept. 16, 2017, in St. Louis. Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Three St. Louis police associations have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to keep the city from expanding civilian oversight of their police department.

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 Safety. The new division allows oversight officials to access the use of force and misconduct complaints and independently investigate misconduct claims. It also has the power to discipline law enforcement officers.  

“When we put the public back in public safety, we are creating an environment where all members of the community are working towards accountability and safer neighborhoods in the long run,” Jones said during a news conference for the bill signing 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 an injunction to keep the law from going into effect. Their complaint? The new legislation gives the civilian-led board too much power to discipline police, which would ultimately push officers out of the force and drive up crime rates. 

“We have a horrible situation already recruiting and retaining police officers. Police officers are stressed that … they’ll be targeted by anti-cop groups,” Sherrie Hall, attorney for the Ethical Society of Police, told NBC News.

The mayor’s office said it could not comment on pending litigation. Representatives for and against the measure met at a hearing 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 land. There were about 200 oversight entities in the U.S. before 2020, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. And in November 2020, after a swath of police violence protests across the country, at least 10 cities and counties approved civilian oversight measures, according to a report from the Lawfare Institute and the Brookings Institution. 

One of those cities was Columbus, Ohio, which that year passed a measure to establish a civilian-led board that would launch police misconduct investigations and recommend discipline. Until then, Columbus was the largest city without a review board, City Council President Shannon Hardin said at the time, and 74% of voters overwhelmingly supported the measure. 

Similar measures passed elsewhere, as in San Diego, which replaced its community review board with a Commission on Police Practices to review misconduct complaints and discipline measures. In Philadelphia, an initiative passed to create the Citizens Police Oversight Commission, which has the power to issue subpoenas and review police policies. 

“The more power and authority the agency is given, the more likely it is that there will be opposition on the part of the police.”

- Richard Rosenthal, Independent Police auditor of pasadenia, california's community police oversight commission

The St. Louis measure grants its new oversight agency the authority many cities and counties have unsuccessfully fought for. City officials said in their response to the police groups’ lawsuit that the groups could not accurately assess any supposed harm the bill would do before it took effect. City officials also said that not implementing the law would do great harm to the city. 

To that, Hall countered, “We know we have harm already. People are leaving the force over it and we’re already understaffed.” A spokesperson 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 when there are attempts to improve police accountability, there is often pushback from law enforcement agencies. The Newark Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 12 famously tried to block a 2016 ordinance that  gave the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board subpoena power to obtain internal police documents and the authority to investigate officers. The state Supreme Court ultimately stripped the entity of subpoena power

“The more power and authority the agency is given, the more likely it is that there will be opposition on the part of the police,” said Richard Rosenthal, who served as the independent monitor for Denver’s oversight agency from 2005 to 2011. He is now the independent police auditor of Pasadena, California’s Community Police Oversight Commission. 

Police oversight is nothing new

Police oversight of some form has existed in the U.S. since the 1800s, but the first modern civilian review board was established in Washington, D.C., in 1948, in response to the use of force by police on Black people, according to reports from both the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and other police oversight experts. Historically, the country’s civilian review boards faced fierce police opposition, a lack of resources, limited power and, as a result, had difficulty in reducing police violence and increasing accountability, according to the reports. The number of such boards has slowly risen over the decades, but began to skyrocket after 2010, the reports said. Today, almost all large U.S. cities have some kind of oversight agency, mostly under one of three models: investigation-focused, monitor-focused, or review-focused, with the review-focused model being most prevalent in the country, according to a NACOLE report

It is difficult to determine the efficacy of the boards overall when their scope of authority varies so widely from place to place. But some agencies have been held up as models of success. 

Rosenthal called Denver’s agency the “gold standard” of civilian oversight. In 2004, the city replaced its civilian commission with an independent monitor, and the new entity boasted community collaboration and new leadership. This proved crucial for the agency, which could then uncover inadequate police discipline and create a new system for identifying officers accused of misconduct, Rosenthal said. 

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

“We’ve definitely impacted and helped reduce officer-involved shootings and use of force. Officer-involved shootings are happening less and when they are happening, they’re adhering to policy and to law,” Cziment said. The number of officer-involved shootings has decreased drastically, from 20 in 2012 to nine in 2020, according to a 2020 report from the office. Incidents of “serious uses of force” also declined from 79 in 2019 to 44 in 2021, according to an annual report.

“We’re definitely doing a lot, and our priorities are sound. But we would like to be doing so much more," said Cziment. "We’re a very small team and we’re currently requesting additional funding to be able to expand our team.”

As for St. Louis, John Chasnoff, a local activist who both worked with city officials on the new law and the original law establishing the city’s civilian oversight board in 2015, said he was expecting police groups to push back against the new legislation. He said revamping the city’s oversight entity was necessary, as the existing board did not have the power to discipline officers or have access to actual police complaints. Activists championed the original civilian oversight board after Michael Brown’s death in 2014, but the board wasn’t as effective as they’d hoped. Police killed more than two dozen people from 2015 through 2020, but the board couldn’t investigate those deaths because the police department “withheld nearly all of the complaints” it received against the officers involved, according to an investigation from Reveal and The Missouri Independent

“Under the new system, we’re taking the functions of the internal affairs and putting it inside this new Division of Civilian Oversight. That’s a major change. The investigations will be led by civilians. This is a new change and police are suspicious of it. I think over time, as the new division gets up and running, a lot of the fears will die down,” Chasnoff said. 

He added that he didn't believe the police groups’ lawsuit would be successful because the groups don’t seem to “fully understand” the new law. “And it surprised me that they filed the lawsuit on Aug. 9, which is the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown,” he noted. 

While some city oversight boards boast success, others have struggled to have a positive impact on the community and policing. Sharon Fairley, who led a Chicago oversight agency from 2015 to 2017 and is now a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said that "historically, Chicago was the poster child for failed civilian oversight," referring to the city's past controversies and not its current oversight system.

The city’s Independent Police Review Authority, tasked with investigating officer-involved shootings, faced criticism in 2015 when footage surfaced of an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald a year after the incident. Fairley said she was hired to revamp the agency but “its reputation was so badly tarnished at that point that it could not survive and needed to be replaced.” Chicago recently passed a landmark ordinance to establish a new oversight commission, giving it the final say on policy for the Chicago Police Department. 

Fairley, who studies oversight efforts across the country, published research in 2020 that highlighted the fact that while oversight agencies have become common across the U.S., tensions between politicians, police and the public persist. Fairley said two things were necessary for an oversight entity to be effective: resources and independence. 

“Independence meaning subpoena power, access to documentation. There’s got to be direct access to the information and material that the agency needs to do its work. By resources I mean financial, human and technical. They need money to support the efforts,” Fairley said. 

“Civilian oversight is no panacea for police misconduct,” she argued. “If law enforcement does not embrace accountability as a core value, there’s not a whole lot that a civilian oversight agency can do. For accountability to succeed, it’s gotta be part of the culture of the law enforcement agency, too.”

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