Protesters face off with police in September 2017.
Since January 2017, the St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board has reviewed nearly 40 allegations of police misconduct, including allegations of police planting drugs on suspects, beating handcuffed suspects at Ballpark Village, shooting a dog, misplacing a detained person’s car keys, stealing money and making a man dress in women’s clothing for purposes of humiliation. In nearly all cases the board has unanimously agreed with the findings of the police department’s own Internal Affairs Division.
In fact, in reviewing records of the board’s meeting minutes from last year, the RFT found only two civilian complaints in which the board's ruling differed from Internal Affairs. Neither case resulted in any recommendations of major discipline against a St. Louis officer.
Contention surrounded the creation of the board in 2015. That January, an aldermanic public safety committee meeting turned into a melee between protestors and police when officers spoke against creating the oversight board. Given that, it may be a surprise to some that the board and police Internal Affairs are so often on the same page.
However, Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at UMSL, said that this level of agreement is “not unusual.” And rather than making outsiders question the oversight board, he suggests it should give us faith in the Internal Affairs Division.
"Generally speaking, Internal Affairs operate fairly independently and, in my view, objectively," he says. "They’re not prone to support bad behavior, especially illegal behavior. Officers in the wrong tend to regard Internal Affairs as their enemy.” And for the oversight board to find a complaint to be unfounded, he notes, is “not to say the complaint was frivolous. It simply means there was a disagreement on the facts."
In open meetings in 2017, minutes show, the board discussed 37 complaints.
The first disagreement with Internal Affairs came in March when the board reviewed an allegation that officers “used excessive force causing injury to complainant” who “was not resisting arrest at the time.” In a rare split vote, the oversight board voted 4-2 to disagree with Internal Affairs. The board then approved a motion 5-1 that the officer “used more than the least amount of force reasonably necessary” in the arrest. The board voted that the officer review the video of the arrest “with his/her supervisor, and the officer undergo reinstruction on the use of force continuum.”
The second instance of disagreement concerns what appears to be allegations of poor record-keeping by officers. During the board’s October meeting, members discussed five allegations filed by the same person, who reported being harassed by a neighbor because of their religious beliefs. The complainant said they called 911 on numerous occasions to report the harassment and that “on each occasion SLMPD responded to the calls but never wrote a police report to document the issues.” The complainant claimed that on four separate occasions the police failed to properly document calls.
Internal Affairs in all four allegations (as well as a fifth, related allegation) cleared the officers, but the oversight board disagreed on two of the four, essentially saying that members believed police did fail to properly document calls for service. There appear to be no disciplinary or procedural recommendations put forward by the board directly related to this case.
The board is part of the city's Division of Public Safety and is comprised of seven members, each representing four of the city’s wards. The members include a municipal judge, a registered nurse, a small business owner and multiple lawyers, both retired and still practicing. (One member, Stephen Rovak, according to his law firm’s website, defended Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg when the pair were accused of plagiarizing the 1996 film Twister
Nicolle Barton, the oversight board's executive director, tells the RFT, “We do agree with Internal Affairs about 80 to 85 percent of the time." But, she says, in many instances, Internal Affairs is in fact taking action against officers: "Internal Affairs' findings can be anywhere from the compliant was unfounded to the complaint was referred to mediation…to the complaint was sustained.”
Individuals who feel they’ve been a victim of police misconduct can file a complaint through a Joint Civilian Complaint Form with the board. The complaint is then forwarded to Internal Affairs, and Barton says it is Internal Affairs that “does all the initial investigation, collecting witness statements as well as audio, video and medical reports, and then they turn that information over to us.”
The board does have the authority to do a separate outside investigation, but unless it's granted subpoena power, it can’t compel anyone to give testimony or evidence.
The board meets once a month, first in a closed session then in a session open to the public. The open sessions are often sparsely attended by the public, according to one activist who often goes to the open meetings. (In fact, the activist was the only other member of the public at the March meeting aside from this reporter; no other journalists were present.)
In several cases in the past year, the oversight board has urged that the city change policies and procedures in response to an incident, even when it found no wrongdoing by the officers in question.
In September 2017, for instance, the board discussed a complaint from an individual who alleged being beaten, tased and hit in the face by the barrel of a rifle as police executed a search warrant. The complaint also alleges officers shot their dog.
Internal Affairs found the allegations not sustained, and the oversight board unanimously agreed. However, board member Stephen Rovak motioned, in regard to this incident, that if a person in police custody “is tased three or more times that the subject be taken to the hospital for evaluation” before going to jail. The board unanimously approved the motion.
Recommendations like this one are sent directly to Police Chief John Hayden as well as Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards.
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