Late last month, during a meeting of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, a shoving match broke out among members of the public — some of them off-duty police officers.
The cause of the tension was a proposal to create a new civilian oversight authority for the police. Advocates of police reform like civilian oversight, but police officers say the boards are often politicized and unfair to them.
The concept of civilian police oversight isn’t new. In 1965, New York Mayor John Lindsay proposed including civilians on a review board as a way to address complaints from minority groups about police misconduct. But the move backfired; the police union and conservatives such as William F. Buckley rallied against civilian oversight, and voters later defeated the idea in a city-wide vote, returning the the board to police only. It took more than two decades for civilian oversight of police to be restored in New York.
The idea fared better in other cities. In Kansas City, Mo., the Office of Community Complaints was the brainchild of a personal injury lawyer named Sid Willens. He says his eyes were opened to the problem of police accountability in 1965, when he tried to get justice for a client who’d been badly beaten while handcuffed. Willens says the police department’s internal investigation simply confirmed the officer’s version of what happened. “It’s like having the fox guard the chicken house,” Willens says.
Photo caption: Late last month, a scuffle cut short a St. Louis Board of Aldermen meeting where a committee was to discuss a proposed civilian review board for the city’s police force. Photo credit: Robert Cohen/Courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch