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Is St. Louis Really Committed To Police Accountability? Or Are They Just Papering Over The Problems?

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

On Monday, in response to police-involved shootings that have reignited a tense debate about excessive use of force and law enforcement procedurals, the Board of Aldermen in St. Louis voted for the creation of a civilian oversight board to investigate officer complaints and make recommendations for police reform. Mayor Francis Slay will sign the bill establishing the board into law on May 5, and appoint seven members — one from each of the city’s districts — to sit on the committee shortly thereafter. However, many proponents of civilian oversight voted against the measure because the board would have no subpoena power. And the St. Louis Police Officers Association has already vocalized disapproval of the bill, arguing that it violates city statutes.

With stakeholders unable to agree on how best to hold police accountable and transparent, the board may not prove effective in the near future. But the infighting is emblematic of a larger debate about the usefulness and potency of external oversight elsewhere in the country.

With the soon-to-be-confirmed board, St. Louis joins a growing group of municipalities that have either established external oversight bodies or are in the process of doing so. Indeed, the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends all communities develop oversight processes to enhance police accountability, and calls for additional research on evidence-based methods that work and don’t work. The Justice Department also advocates additional oversight in cities where it’s found gross police misconduct. To avoid federal lawsuits stemming from DOJ findings, Portland and Albuquerque recently created their own oversight boards. Back in February, Mayor Martin Walsh of Boston declared his commitment to overhauling the city’s current oversight panel, by appointing two new members to the three-person committee — the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel (CO-OP) — charged with reviewing Boston Police Department misconduct investigations.

But state and local agencies have unique structures and policing practices, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to monitoring law enforcement activity — making it all the more difficult to determine how to bring about comprehensive, productive reform.

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Forms of oversight generally fall into three categories: investigations of police complaints, audits of police practices, and the creation of civilian oversight bodies. Investigative authorities accept and review complaints, talk to witnesses, and search for additional evidence. Auditors have the ability to review police departments’ standards of practice, observe trends, and make recommendations for improving internal law enforcement procedures. Civilian review boards serve as liaisons to the community at large, and facilitate conversations between officers and the people they serve.

Chief law enforcement executives must exercise leadership and educate the community when citizen review discussions and actions arise.

According to Human Rights Watch, productive review agencies assess police files and records, produce regular analyses of departmental patterns and statistics, and convince law enforcement to support additional oversight. The most useful citizen boards have “independence, civilian control, and some role in disciplinary hearings,” and have enough public support and engagement to withstand legal recourse and backlash from law enforcement.

But many skeptics believe oversight bodies are more symbolic than substantive, lacking teeth to make necessary reforms or take law enforcement to task. “The idea of a civilian review board is a good one. Where you run into problems is if bodies are set up as figureheads. They don’t have any power, they don’t have any budget, they don’t have the ability to get information from the police department. That can be dangerous, because then you have people in the community who are just told ‘Oh, you have that process,’ when, in fact, they don’t have the protections that [they] think,” Whitney Taylor, the Director of Public Advocacy at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told ThinkProgress.

In Boston, for example, the CO-OP only reviews BPD’s investigations of police misconduct for thoroughness and fairness. If the board disagrees with BPD findings, it’s able to make recommendations to the Police Commissioner. It doesn’t actually actually look at complaints, and lacks resources to function successfully. According to Taylor, Massachusetts has an abysmal public records law, so the CO-OP board can’t access documents that law enforcement officials refuse to share. In contrast, New York City has a Civilian Complaint Review Board that’s tasked with making recommendations based on its findings, but it routinely fails to do so. When recommendations are made, CCRB doesn’t track changes to ensure NYPD follow-through. NYPD leadership also ignores CCRB findings and suggestions, as was the case when Police Commissioner Bill Bratton refused to implement tough penalties for illegal chokeholds.

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“If you do not have a mayor’s office, a city council, a police commissioner, and chief of police willing to make this work, there are so many different ways the system can break down,” Taylor added.

Getting that level of cooperation and buy-in is easier said than done. Human Rights Watch has found that most officers staunchly oppose external review structures, on the basis that civilians aren’t informed about police protocol and can turn policing into a political game. Some protest external oversight because it can spark animosity between officers and civilians. Departments also object on logistical grounds, arguing that enforcement of policy recommendations can be costly and strip authority from people in executive roles.

If you do not have a mayor’s office, a city council, a police commissioner, and chief of police willing to make this work, there are so many different ways the system can break down.

However, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a group with 23,000 members in 100 countries, considers civilian oversight both imperative and mutually beneficial. “Chief law enforcement executives must exercise leadership and educate the community when citizen review discussions and actions arise,” reads one of its reports. “Addressing citizen review provides an opportunity for leadership — a chance for a chief to take an initiative on accountability, an opportunity to educate the public on a complex issue, and an opportunity to work collaboratively to arrive at a decision that meets both police and community concerns.” Still, IACP asserts the primary role of police chiefs is to establish an environment that condemns unethical behavior in the first place.

According to the report, citizen review becomes necessary when that responsibility is unfulfilled, but it isn’t the only mechanism to hold law enforcement accountable. IACP Director of Development John Firman explained to ThinkProgress that police chiefs should actively pursue creative solutions to immediate concerns. To that effect, IACP hosted the National Policy Summit on Community-Police Relations last October, to provide a space for stakeholders to brainstorm ways to rebuild trust between officers and civilians. Prominent civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), and the ACLU were in attendance to share expertise, as well as researchers and representatives from lesser-known organizations. Although the conversations were tense and uncomfortable at times, bringing the different groups together to deliberate resulted in a list of additional solutions to improve trust.

Taylor also contends civilian oversight shouldn’t be viewed as the end goal. “There’s no silver bullet to making sure that we have accountable and transparent policing. When we talk about the different efforts that are out there, I think that it’s disingenuous and dangerous to think if you get behind one proposal that it’s going to fix everything,” she noted. “We need to look at multiple ways to start stepping up police accountability and transparency, and improving relationships between police and communities.”