Legal fight over civilian oversight of St. Louis police could have statewide implications

A 2021 state law established a ‘Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,’ creating a potential barrier to the city’s new civilian-led investigation agency

By: - September 22, 2022 7:30 am

A St. Louis police officer orders protesters to disperse in November 2014 outside City Hall (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

A St. Louis ordinance aimed at transforming the way the city investigates allegations of police misconduct went into effect on Sept. 2. 

A week later, three police organizations successfully got a preliminary injunction, putting a pause on the city’s expansion of civilian oversight of police work. 

In a decision with statewide implications, St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser blocked the ordinance citing a state law passed last year establishing a “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” which bolstered protections for officers under investigation for misconduct. 

The judge ordered the city had to stop implementing its new Division of Civilian Oversight — a civilian-led independent agency that’s paid for by the city and that was set to build a team of 10 investigators to take over all internal police investigations that have to do with misconduct and use of force.

On Tuesday, the city filed a motion stating that the judge’s order granting the preliminary injunction will have “serious consequences” that the court didn’t intend. And that includes halting a piece of its current police-accountability process that the judge agreed isn’t in legal question, the city argued.

If the police organizations — the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, the Ethical Society of Police and the St. Louis Police Leadership Organization  — are successful in the lawsuit it could block cities across Missouri from enacting police accountability measures, said Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis.

“Even in some rural areas, a situation may occur where there needs to be an independent body, just to look outside of the police,” Aldridge said. 

But the bill of rights creates an “extra class system” for law enforcement, he said.

“We don’t have a homeless bill of rights or a low-wage worker bill of rights,” Aldridge said. “More transparency in the community would be held up because of this extra class system or protocols that our officers now have.” 

The ordinance and the order

Mayor Tishaura Jones signed a bill into law on Aug. 3, 2022, to create an independent civilian-led agency that will investigate police misconduct and use-of-force cases (Photo courtesy of Mayor Tishaura Jones’ Office).

The ordinance, approved by the St. Louis Board of Alderman in July and signed soon after by Mayor Tishaura Jones, created a Division of Civilian Oversight — the first of its kind in the state and among the first in the country as well. 

While several Missouri cities have civilian oversight boards that review the internal investigations that police complete themselves, the division would actually conduct and oversee investigations into police misconduct.

“More and more civilian oversight [boards nationwide] are doing reviews,” said Matthew Brummund, who will lead the division when it’s up and running, “but I’m not aware of many that are doing the actual investigations.”

In his Sept. 9 order, Sengheiser pointed to several provisions in the new state law — which consists of a list of more than 15 new requirements that includes giving officers 24-hour written notice of the allegation before an investigation begins.

The portion of St. Louis’ ordinance, he said, that could be considered a conflict reads: “City employees involved in or witness to police correctional incidents or misconduct shall provide a statement to civilian oversight investigators immediately upon request.” 

The city argues that the ordinance was not intended to apply to an officer who is the subject of an investigation but rather to other city employees, Sengheiser wrote in his order. 

“However, defendants admitted that SLMPD officers are city employees,” he states. 

Sengheiser said he weighed the harm the injunction could cause to both the city’s functions and police officers, specifically pointing to how the ordinance could impact officers’ “morale.”

While the issue of police accountability is “critical” to public safety, Sengheiser said, “the structures currently in place to provide that accountability will remain in place and functioning while the City of St. Louis attempts to create a new accountability structure that it believes will better balance the issues of police accountability and public safety.”

However, the city argued Tuesday that the injunction would not allow the current structure to function, as the judge intended.

In 2015, the city passed a law that established the city’s civilian oversight board. It’s made up of seven volunteer residents who, for the past six years, have been reviewing the investigations conducted by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department into officers accused of excessive force, abuse of authority and discrimination. 

The judge stated that the board abides by the state law governing civilian oversight boards, and the new city ordinance wouldn’t change that.  

However, the Board of Aldermen repealed the 2015 law governing the board and folded it into the new ordinance. So now the board’s work has been put on pause as well, the city argues.

“The [Civilian Oversight Board] is an important part of the city’s lawfully enacted structures to foster police accountability,” the city states in the Tuesday motion and requested that the judge narrow the focus of his order. 

Officers’ ‘bill of rights’

In December, the City of St. Louis filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get the state law establishing the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights struck down. The case is still pending.

The bill’s sponsor Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, touted it as a series of changes “that seek to strengthen (officers’) due process rights when they’ve been accused of misconduct in an internal investigation.” 

Gov. Mike Parson signed the legislation into law last year. 

The city’s lawsuit, filed in Cole County Court, alleges the new law is unconstitutional because it creates an unfunded mandate for the city and creates two classes of public-safety employees — the police and every other public-safety employee.

It also conflicts with how the city charter outlines discipline and legal representation for police officers, the lawsuit says. 

The law “is an unfunded mandate that subverts equal protection guaranteed under the law,” the mayor’s spokesman Nick Dunne told The Independent in December soon after the lawsuit was filed.

Former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden opposed the bill in a Feb. 1, 2021 letter to legislators, stating that giving officers advanced notice could jeopardize an investigation. It also requires that law enforcement agencies give officers notice of who will be conducting the investigation. Some of the requirements could also have a “chilling effect” for witnesses who want to come forward, Hayden wrote at the time.

It also puts a 90-day limit on misconduct investigations.

The law “significantly interferes with our ability to meet the expectations of Missouri residents with respect to holding officers accountable for sustained allegations of misconduct,” Hayden stated.

The law also included a provision penalizing cities that cut police budgets, which is a way to counter the call to “defund the police,” Eigel said during a 2021 Senate floor debate. 

“Defund the police” is an umbrella term that includes initiatives like allocating police funds to hire social workers to handle certain 911 calls, which the city’s public safety director supports.

Numerous times over the years, the Missouri Supreme Court has thrown out wide-ranging bills that violate the state constitution’s prohibition against multiple subjects in a bill.

The bill of rights was tacked on to a wide-ranging bill. St. Louis argues the entire bill should be deemed unconstitutional because it wouldn’t have passed “if the circuit attorney payments, lotteries, pesticide regulations and taxation provisions had not been injected.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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