4 min read
Posted on 06.11.05
  • 4 min read
  • Posted on 06.11.05

Not everyone in our City — or in City Hall — wants a civilian review board for the police department. And not everyone wants the same sort of review board.

Some people think that a new civilian review board will exist only to second-guess police officers and make their difficult jobs harder. Others believe that the current system, which makes the gubernatorial Police Board a civilian review board, works well enough. Others want a new review board with greatly circumscribed powers. And still others want a review board with broad powers that are not allowed under state law.

I believe we need the kind of review board that will improve the community’s trust and that will allow our officers to do their jobs effectively — though you would never know my position from reading the local newspapers. That’s why I want to speak to you directly concerning my support.

Here’s what I think:

I believe our citizens and the police need to work closely to make all of our neighborhoods safe. By giving our citizens another way to address their grievances, an independent civilian review board will improve the trust between the police department and the people it serves — and make us all safer.

I met with Terry Kennedy, the principal author of civilian review board (CRB) legislation at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, shortly before the start of the current aldermanic session. We found that we agreed on most issues.

After our meeting, Alderman Kennedy introduced a measure and it was sent to the Public Safety Committee, of which he is chairman. I told Alderman Kennedy that I would assign Charles Bryson, my Neighborhood Development Executive, to work with him and the aldermen to iron out the final issues and get it passed.

But, Alderman Kennedy also serves on the Ways & Means Committee, which is currently conducting hearings on the City’s annual budget. Because he has rightly decided to make the complex budget his priority right now, Alderman Kennedy has not yet held hearings on the CRB bill. That does not mean it is bottled up or stuck in committee. Blaming Alderman Kennedy — or me — for a delay is bad reporting. Once the budget is finished, I fully expect Alderman Kennedy will hold hearings and try to move the CRB bill forward.

Between us, Alderman Kennedy and I will likely find enough votes to overcome the objections of those opposed to any form of civilian review. And between us, there remains only one important difference: I do not support the direct election of civilian review board members that Alderman Kennedy favors.

No other civilian review board in the country is directly elected.

I fear that direct election of civilian review board members would mean divisive campaigns between people who are anti-police and people who believe the police can do no wrong. The campaigns themselves would polarize communities and hurt the morale of the police department.

I also worry that the nature of campaigning — telling voters what you would do if elected — is the antithesis of the duties of CRB members to be objective and impartial. After campaigning on a platform of support or opposition to the police department, it would be difficult to be objective. (That’s one reason why our judges are not elected.)

Finally, I suspect that elections could result in a board made up of members who are either blindly pro-police or anti-police. This would politicize the review process, worsening the ill feelings that already exist.

I do support a process that assures the service of a diverse group of objective citizens from all parts of the City and all walks of life — a goal that Alderman Kennedy certainly shares.

My recommendation is to divide the city into seven geographic regions with four directly elected representatives — aldermen — in each. Each alderman would recommend one person, or all four aldermen could come together and nominate the same person. I would be bound to select from their recommendations.

I think this would allow the CRB to be diverse in geography, race, gender, and economic status without subjecting city residents to a caustic campaign or infecting the civilian review board with partisans.

Are we stuck? I don’t think so. Alderman Kennedy and I both understand that an impasse between supporters of any form of civilian review is the same as opposition to every form of civilian review.

I respect the relationship that I have with Alderman Kennedy and believe that the two of us working together with people of good will create a fair and impartial civilian review board.

One final point: We do not need to wait for a civilian review board to find out what happened to Ruby Harriel. Ms. Harriel was pepper sprayed by police officers in her own home — a very serious matter. I have talked to Chief Joe Mokwa and he assures me that he is leading the internal investigation into the incident himself. I believe Chief Mokwa takes every allegation of police misconduct very, very seriously and investigates them very professionally. Before we assume that this incident will be brushed under the rug, I think we should give the Chief a chance to finish the investigation.

Thank you for taking the time to read a long statement on an important issue.