St. Louis Police Investigate Officers’ Shootings — And Never Reveal Results to Oversight Board
This story was published in partnership with The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom about gun violence in the United States
The St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board was formed in 2015 to review the police force following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Despite more than 50 police shootings in the city in the past five years, the police department has not provided any material to investigate a single case.
As a result, the Oversight Body was unable to carry out one of its most important tasks and that which sparked its creation: to prevent the department from ill-treating investigations into police violence.
“In five years we will have nothing,” said Kimberley Taylor-Riley, the board’s commissioner. The delay in completing the investigation, she continued, “has been completely thwarted [the board’s] Process.”
The police department in a written reply declined to offer an explanation for the delays, but said, “All cases [the department has] checked were handed over to the prosecutor. “The prosecution did not respond to several requests for comment on the status of these reports.
According to activists polled for this story, the city’s April 6 mayoral election has the potential to halt the civilian scrutiny pipeline. Current Mayor Lyda Krewson has decided not to run for re-election, and her two potential successors – Alderwoman Cara Spencer and Town Treasurer Tishaura Jones – have promised ambitious reforms to the criminal justice system. Whoever wins the election has the option of appointing a new director of the Public Security Department, which oversees both the civil inspectorate and the police.
John Chasnoff, co-founder of Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, a nonprofit local police force, said that new leadership “is more likely to make change than anything”. He added that through the Board of Aldermen, the Mayor could help guard changes to the Civilian Oversight Board’s founding ordinance. He and other activists in the city have argued that placing the Civilian Oversight Board and the Police Department under the same city authority creates a conflict of interest.
In response to questions about how she will approach the city’s civilian scrutiny process, a spokeswoman for Spencer’s campaign shared a press release detailing her police reform plan. The plan does not specifically address the late police shooting investigations, but notes that the city’s civil review process “is being reviewed for further action and increased accountability and effectiveness”.
A spokesman for Jones’ campaign said he was aware of the delays in the police department and said any shootings in which the department was involved “must be investigated by independent teams of investigators.” They added that the division’s internal affairs division took advantage of a loophole in the regulation that established the Civilian Oversight Board to avoid sharing hundreds of civilian complaints with the board. “With a mayor and a public safety director committed to accountability and transparency, we can fix this issue and give COB the power and resources to get the job done,” the spokesman said.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department leads the nation in official killings. Analysis by ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal aid organization, found the department contributed to 18 deaths per million residents, roughly four times the rate of police killings in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The vast majority of these murders are shot. Since 2015, St. Louis police have fatally shot 32 residents – 26 blacks – and injured many others, according to a police shooting database maintained by the Washington Post. According to the department, St. Louis Police opened investigations into 55 shootings of officers between 2015 and late 2020.
The Civilian Oversight Board is supposed to control this violence. The seven-member board consists of mayor members who have been confirmed by the city council of the city administration. In addition to investigating civil complaints and reviewing reports of officers’ misconduct in internal affairs, the Board has a particular responsibility for reviewing the police agency’s internal investigations into the shooting of officers. If an investigation is determined to have not been properly conducted, the agency has legal powers to instruct the police to collect additional evidence or they can send an independent team of investigators to collect it. Once the board is satisfied with its results, it can make recommendations to the police chief on changes the department should make to prevent future shootings and publish its results so that community residents are informed of the department’s wrongdoing.
However, a lengthy and complicated internal review process, clogged by disputes between the police department and the city’s lawyer, has kept the agency from investigating shootings. Many city dwellers whose loved ones have been killed or injured by police violence are unsure whether officers had exhausted all possible means before using force.
“If the process isn’t transparent, a wound remains open because you don’t feel like everything was done fairly,” said Carlos Ball, the brother of Cary Ball, who was killed by St. Louis police in 2013, said Cary finished a shift in the laundry room at Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis and was driving a colleague home when police pulled up his car. Cary escaped on foot, and after a brief chase, officers shot Cary 21 times. Officers claimed he pointed a Glock pistol in their direction. But civilian witnesses denied this characterization; At least one said Cary threw the gun away when police opened fire.
The Civilian Oversight Board did not exist in 2013, and an FBI review of the investigation into the shooting found the officers involved were warranted. But no agency outside of law enforcement agencies had a chance to review the department’s investigation. Without civil review, Carlos said, “It’s a completely one-sided scale of justice.”