Friday, July 15, 2016

An Interview With The Civilian Oversight Board

I recently had the opportunity to talk about "Community Engagement" at a panel discussion hosted by the St. Louis Public Library. Afterward, a member of the recently-formed City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board introduced herself and asked if I'd like to meet the others on the team and learn more about the role of this newly-formed office within the Department of Public Safety.

I decided to take her up on the invitation with the intention of sharing some of the positive actions that are a result of the current events and scrutiny around policing in St. Louis and the region at large.

If you are like me, you watched the events play out after the death of Michael Brown in November, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri and other small towns in the suburbs just north of St. Louis and came to the realization that things have to change. Conversations began on how to make improvements to the "taxation by citation" policing methods employed by many of these small towns in St. Louis County and the use of force in the line of duty to serve and protect across the many police departments in the region. 

One thing that seems obvious after the disputes, higher scrutiny and maybe most of all: cell phone footage of police interactions now available to nearly everyone via social media is that we need additional avenues to help bridge the efforts of the police force with the community. In order to ensure trust between law enforcement and the community, we need a process for citizens who feel they've been treated unjustly or unprofessionally by law enforcement officials to seek justice.  I think we can all agree that as citizens we want the best, most respectful, just and equitable relations with the police force that is possible. Respect is a two-way street.

Transparency is a cornerstone of trust in our democracy and we need hon
est channels to air our grievances with the power structures and feel as though due process has been served. Bridges can be built to help citizens and the police hired and trained to protect us to enforce the laws in a manor that fits and respects the community. St. Louis
 took a first step toward this goal in April, 2015 when the Board of Alderman voted 17-8 in favor of establishing the Civilian Oversight Board (COB) to help bridge any gaps of trust and professionalism between citizens and the police force through the establishment of a system to allow citizens an avenue to report alleged misconduct by police, followed by a review of a seven-member appointed board to mediate complaints.

From an April, 2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article:
Under the proposed bill, a seven-person St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board would have the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct; research and assess police policies, operations and procedures; and make findings and recommendations. It could also review evidence and witness statements from investigations by police internal affairs. The board would report its findings to the city’s public safety director and police chief.
So, I sat down with Executive Director, Nicolle Barton and Legal Investigators Aldin Lolic and Louisa Lyles in Room 4029 of the Abram Building at 1520 Market Street in the city's Downtown West Neighborhood to get a little more information on this newly-formed office. The staff has an impressive and diverse background including insurance investigation, probation and parole advocacy, Department of Corrections and the Circuit Attorney's Office experience.
left to right: Barton, Lolic and Lyles
As stated above, an ordinance was passed in April, 2015 establishing the office. The office reports to Richard Gray, the Director of Public Safety. By May, they were accepting official complaints. To date, the office has received six separate complaints.


So how does this whole process work? What if you have an interaction with the police that you deemed unprofessional or unjust and you would like an independent assessment of the facts and the incident itself?

First, you need to be 18 years of age or older to file a complaint. If a minor was involved, a parent or guardian can file a complaint on the minor's behalf. The complaint must be filed within 90 days from the occurrence of the incident.

Then you fill out an official complaint form. The simple, two-page form is available online or a paper form may be picked up at the Public Safety Department (room 401 at City Hall), the COB office (1520 Market Street room 4209) or at the North, Central and South Police Patrol divisions. You can also contact the COB at (314) 657-1600 to have a form mailed to your home.

The forms are then filled out and mailed to the COB office, or dropped off in person. You cannot file an anonymous complaint; hence no email, an official signature is required to file a complaint. If you have audio or video footage from the incident, it may be provided whether you recorded it on your own device or a neighbor/witness recorded it. This data may be provided in a drop box or downloaded at the office.

Mediation may be pursued. For example, if you feel inappropriate language or unnecessary rudeness was displayed, you may choose to seek remediation with the police. If mediation is preferred, you may indicate it by checking a box on the form; doing so will not disqualify your complaint from COB review.

Once the official complaint if filed, it is logged in the data entry system and assigned a case number so your name will not be used in the on-going proceedings.

The complaint is then turned over to the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police within 48 hours. A verbal statement as well as any recorded footage will be provided.

The IAD then has 90 days to review the complaint and any accompanying data and turn their file over to the COB office. Members of the COB office are present at the IAD meetings and they provide an independent review of the evidence, findings and recommendations. The meetings are taped and the information is available through a Missouri Sunshine Request.

The COB and IAD reports then go to the appointed seven-member board for review. The board members are selected through a series of interviews by the aldermen and mayor, with the final appointment being made by the mayor him or herself. The seven members represent one of the seven police districts and four wards across the city. They serve as volunteers for a 2-4 year term and can be extended for additional terms of service. They meet monthly on the third Monday of each month at 4:00 p.m. and are open to the public. The meetings are held in Room 4029 at 1520 Market Street.

The seven appointed members of the board will hear the COB and IAD findings and recommendations and will vote on an outcome. That outcome will be compared to the IAD outcome. If both are in agreement, the investigation is deemed complete. To date, the outcomes for all six complaints are still under investigation. Should there be disagreement between the two parties, the Chief of Police shall hold the final decision.

Once a decision is determined, the COB Executive Director reaches out by letter to the complainant. The communication informs the complainant as to whether action was taken by the police department or if no action was required. In the case that action was taken, the specific disciplinary action against the officer is not communicated to the complainant.

The COB also may serve as independent investigators relating to internal officer misconduct allegations.

So that's a high-level summary of how the process works.

As the COB is in its infancy, out-reach efforts are being extended throughout the community. They are attending neighborhood meetings, school and community events (like the library panel discussion where I met Ms. Lyles). They are visiting the International Institute of St. Louis in the coming weeks to reach out to the budding immigrant community in St. Louis. The office is researching COB's across the country, and in the coming weeks will be traveling to Kansas City, Missouri to visit their COB office to compare methods and processes. An open house was hosted last month where ~50 attendees visited the office. Subsequent goals include setting up IT systems to enter, record and track data in a systematic fashion. With policies and procedures underway, the office will work on continuously improving the system as they get more experience along the way.

To-do items for the office include record keeping and file sharing upgrades including on-line posting of COB meeting agendas at least three days prior to the meeting, meeting minutes and annual reports that report metrics and decisions by the COB.

So who pays for this office? Well, the tax payers of course. But specifically, the COB will ask the Board of Alderman to fund the office budget on an annual basis.

A system of checks and balances, teamed with transparent policy, process and communication is the goal of any successful democratic government. These efforts, while in their infancy, seem like a logical and noble first step toward enhancing the relationship between citizens and our respected police department. Kudos to all those seeking positive change, and open communication. We can only do better and I'm hopeful that this office will lead us toward that goal of transparency and due process.

Ms. Barton who has much experience working toward just solutions in Ferguson, Missouri led me to believe that she too is hopeful for the future. Since the 2014 Ferguson events, she sees things changing for the better. The newer academy trainees are evolving their mindsets and becoming more focused on community policing.


We are all evolving. 


In Ms. Lyles' emails back and forth with me, she included a Chinese proverb that states:

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

I couldn't agree more. Thanks to Ms. Lyles, Ms. Malone, Ms. Barton and Mr. Lolic for sharing your story to date and keep up the good work.

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