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Needed: civilian oversight of county police

By Jamala Rogers on behalf of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression

St. Louis American, Published March 26, 2015



Ferguson-related protests of police misconduct have led to a general consensus about the need for civilian oversight of the St. Louis County police departments. This sign of progress comes after a decade of Charlie Dooley’s opposition to civilian oversight and no interest at all among the 58 municipal police agencies. We don’t have models for structuring county-wide oversight from other states because most existing civilian oversight boards serve city governments. Thus, we have an exciting opportunity to set a new standard for police accountability right here in Missouri.

Clearly we should not try to create separate oversight boards for each department. Many of these departments are too small to make ongoing oversight feasible, efficient or effective. Taxpayers will get the most bang for their bucks by pooling resources and expertise into one Civilian Oversight Board for the county, creating a more just and consistent system in the process.

Starting with oversight of the county police may be a first step, but how do we persuade the independent municipalities to participate in a county-wide oversight structure?

We hope that the U. S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson may provide some help in this regard. First, the report  recognizes that a civilian oversight board is just one part of a complete accountability toolkit. Second, like all who have examined the conditions that brought us to the day of Michael Brown Jr.’s shooting, the DOJ acknowledges that the problems do not begin or end at the Ferguson borders. We need to leverage the DOJ response to Ferguson into an umbrella system of police accountability.

It is time to envision what that police accountability for our whole county should look like. We need to think broadly about systems of accountability that keep the best of small local departments –responsiveness, accessibility, easier citizen involvement – but also provide professionalism and consistent high standards.

One potential model is to create two distinct county-wide agencies to help ensure accountability: an expanded Office of Professional Standards and a new Department of Civilian Oversight.

An expanded Office of Professional Standards would report to the County police chief. This office would manage training for all county and municipal officers, operate a county Internal Affairs Division to investigate misconduct complaints against county and municipal officers, oversee one county-wide Early Warning System to intervene and address the behaviors of problem officers, enforce a zero-tolerance policy for bias-based policing by both individuals and departments, and set county-wide policies on use-of-force and other issues of community concern.

A new Department of Civilian Oversight would reporting to the county executive or County Council. It is crucial that civilian oversight be structurally independent, with its own skilled department head and its own budget, yet be able to work in a collegial manner with police. With adequate staffing, it could review investigations generated by complaints against individual officers, and also give input regarding county and municipal policies, operations and procedures.  In this way, it could encourage proper discipline of individuals but also help create systemic best practices. To help manage workloads and to ensure that civilian oversight reflect local priorities, the Department of Civilian Oversight might create three separate oversight boards—one each for North, Central and South county.

We hope to start a broad community discussion on this proposal and others regarding police accountability for St. Louis County. The Ferguson Commission, relevant professional organizations, and most importantly, the residents of St. Louis County should weigh in on this subject, putting forth alternative or complimentary methods for achieving police accountability. There is no more pressing issue facing us as a community.




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