St. Louis police oversight board undermined, report says

A civilian police oversight board established in St. Louis soon after Michael Brown’s death in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, was shut out from reviewing all 21 fatal police shootings during its first four years of existence, according to a report from the board.

The St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board (COB) report, released Monday, sums up its activities for the period of 2016 through 2019 and indicated it has been undermined from fulfilling one of its chief duties — reviewing officer-involved shooting investigations.

COB Commissioner Kimberley Taylor-Riley blamed a bureaucratic maze that follows police shootings. She doesn’t think police are intentionally sabotaging the oversight board.

“I don’t think it’s anything sinister, I really don’t,” Taylor-Riley said Wednesday. “It bears reflection to see if there is another method they could utilize to move those case through the process and get them to us for meaningful review.”

Brown was 18 when he was killed by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. The shooting of the Black teenager by the white officer led to months of protests. Though a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson, the shooting was the catalyst for a review of law enforcement procedures throughout the St. Louis region and led to numerous reforms.

Among them was the creation of a seven-member civilian oversight board in the city of St. Louis, which began operation in 2016. Members are appointed by the mayor and approved by aldermen. The board can make recommendations to the police chief but has no direct authority.

The process is supposed to allow civilian review of complaints against police, and review of cases where an officer kills someone. A roadblock is the fact that investigatory material isn’t turned over to the civilian panel until departmental and criminal reviews are complete.

The new report cites a complicated bureaucratic process that, in all 21 fatal officer-involved shootings, has resulted in none of the investigations being considered “completed,” even those that happened five years ago.

The lengthy investigation process that follows officer-involved shootings includes an internal affairs investigation, an investigation by the circuit attorney’s office, and police commissioners convening a Deadly Force Review Board.

The COB report noted that the Deadly Force Review Board hasn’t met in more than 2 ½ years. It wasn’t clear why, but Taylor-Riley called it “one of the stumbling blocks” thwarting civilian review.

Mayor Tishaura Jones, a progressive Democrat who was elected and took office last month, is seeking clarity on the ordinance that established the Deadly Force Review Board “so that the City can expedite the review of deadly force cases,” spokesman Nick Dunne said in an email.

Police spokesman Sgt. Keith Barrett said the department “takes accountability seriously.”

“We will continue to work hard to build trust through thorough and competent investigations,” Barrett said in an email. “We will work with the Mayor’s Administration, the Director of Public Safety, and the COB to ensure that fatal police shootings and citizen complaints are completed in as timely a manner as possible and are made available to the COB for review.”

Activist John Chasnoff, who pushed for establishment of the civilian board after Brown’s death, said the report offers evidence that police shooting investigations should be conducted from the outset by an independent unit, whether it be the civilian oversight board or some other entity.

“It’s impossible for the police to investigate themselves,” Chasnoff said.

Eighteen of the 21 people killed in encounters with police officers during the four-year period were Black, and three were white, the COB report shows.