Civilian Oversight and Community Control

A Response to the Socialist Alternative

–John Chasnoff

February 5, 2013

As someone who supports the bill for Civilian Oversight of the police in the Board of Alderpersons, I am pleased and excited to see the Socialist Alternative fully engaged in the issue. I share tWhat Community Control Looks Likeheir respect and gratitude to the many dedicated protesters who have fought for a transformation of the police in our society. Unlike the Socialist Alternative, I think the proposed bill is worthy of that struggle and people’s support.

I hope we can continue the dialogue in formats like this and in person, as there is much strategy and many tactics, as well as details of the proposal, to discuss.

Perhaps it would be best to start the discussion by clearing up many misconceptions about the bill. The Socialist Alternative flyer contains some of those misconceptions, and I’m concerned they can foster disunity. The following points quote from the flyer and then discuss the issues:

“…the only available evidence for the board to review is generated and vetted by the police department.” This is not accurate. The police department would generate the initial evidence, but the COB can conduct its own independent investigation whenever it feels the police have done an inadequate job.
“Someone would still have to report a complaint against an officer directly to the police department.” Not accurate. People can file complaints with either the police or the COB.
“The Board of Aldermen in St Louis cannot grant any agency subpoena power; this can only be done at the State level.” Subpoena power can be granted either at the state level or through a change in the St. Louis City Charter. The companion bill we are proposing (already drafted) would put the issue on the ballot for citizens to make the change. It is also important to note that subpoena power would be seldom used, since the police are required by BB 208 to turn over all evidence to the COB.
“…it [the COB] has no independent funding with unpaid board members expected to utilize the current staff in the Department of Public Safety. If the COB is made independent without new funding, there will be no budget to cover the staff needed to properly organize the cases being reviewed by the board.” It would be great to find money to pay the COB members, but the rest of the quote isn’t correct. The COB would be a separate line item in the City budget. It will have funding. It will not rely on “current staff” in the Dept. of Public Safety; new staff can be hired from the outside—the bill only makes reference to the fact that they would technically be employees of the Dept. of Public Safety. The companion bill to house the COB in a new Dept. of Civilian Oversight would not leave it unfunded. It would still have its own line item in the city budget and in fact would have more independent control over that budget.
“Because meetings of elected officials would have to be held in public due to Sunshine Laws, people could attend meetings of the board and read the notes to ensure its effectiveness.” The Sunshine Law makes no such distinctions between elected officials and appointed ones. All the records and meetings that are open with elected officials are also open under the proposed COB. The problem is, the Sunshine Law closes personnel records. I personally have a long-standing lawsuit fighting to open some of those records. But to allow for open hearings would require a change in state law that is many more years away. I for one don’t want to wait for civilian oversight in the meantime.
“The current bill allows Mayor Slay to select board members from a list proposed by the Alderpeople. This makes it inevitable that those selected would be police lobbyists and loyalists to Slay.” This is not an accurate description of the selection process. It ignores half of that process—the required public hearing and the needed confirmation of the mayor’s nominees by the alderpersons. Many alderpersons do not want a COB composed of “police lobbyists and loyalists to Slay” and will push back against any such nominees. The community has two chances for input—first in advocating for specific names to be recommended by the alderpersons and then second, holding the mayor and the alderpersons accountable at the public hearing if those candidates are not put on the COB.

I understand that this selection process is still questionable in some folk’s minds. They, like the Socialist Alternative, would like to see an elected COB. I understand the desire to avoid the influence of the mayor and others who already control the police department. Ideally, the COB should be accountable to a different set of people. But I don’t think an elected COB would meet our needs. Elections are controlled by monied interests—we could end up with a Board beholden to Rex Sinquefeld and Civic Progess. The election process also produces politicians who operate superficially to sway public opinion. Just look at our current crop of politicians to see how that’s working out for us. There are other problems with elections; I wrote a whole piece on it which you can read here. The long and short of it is that I believe we have just as good a chance of getting a decent COB with the proposed selection process, IF we stay engaged and make it work for us.

The larger vision put forward by the Socialist Alternative is community control of the police based on a COB that has “full powers over the police.” They include in those powers “control over the police budget” and “disciplinary power.” They also want the COB to “re-evaluate the entire training, hiring and procedures of the department.”

I think it’s important to unpack these goals. First, the proposed COB would have the power to re-evaluate training, hiring and procedures. One of its most important functions is to do just that through its broad powers to audit and recommend changes for all procedures, operations and policies.

But the other functions belong with a Police Commission than a COB. It is crucial to recognize that these are two very separate types of agencies with different types of authority. A COB is designed to handle complaints and make policy recommendations. It is not designed to run the police department. Creation of a people’s Police Commission is a lofty and possibly a worthwhile goal, but don’t criticize the COB for not being that Commission. A discussion of such a Commission has its own complicated threads—most Commissions (like the one we just dissolved by a vote of the people in 2013) have had the powers described by the Socialist Alternative but have been ineffectual pawns of the police. Perhaps we can design a better one, but lumping everything we might want under the heading of a COB is to ignore the fact that articulated powers dispersed in various community-responsive groups might be a better way to go than creating one overburdened catch-all agency. For instance, do we really want the same group that sets policies for police having the authority to oversee those policies and evaluate that they are working?

The main thing is, this discussion is now happening with a wider group of people than ever before. That’s all for the good, but in the process let’s try to recognize that many of us are on the same side. We may see different pathways and even envision different solutions, but we will best succeed by communicating and achieving functional unity. I look forward to continuing to work on that.

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