Nancy Solomon: I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. In 2015, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the city of St. Louis established a civilian oversight board to review investigations of officer-involved shootings. The board was supposed to serve as an independent body to review investigations and determined steps forward. Since the board was established, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has never turned over any materials to review an officer-involved shooting case. Compared with other cities, the St. Louis Police Department leads the nation in killings by police officers, worrying activists about the lack of oversight the civilian board has. Joining us to help break this down is Champe Barton, a reporter with The Trace. Champe, thanks for joining us.
Champe Barton: Thanks for having me.
Nancy Solomon: Walk us through how the Civilian Oversight Board works. What's the process supposed to look like?
Champe Barton: Absolutely. The Civilian Oversight Board in St. Louis has several responsibilities, not just reviewing officer-involved shooting investigations. More broadly, their goal is to review internal affairs investigations and any allegations of police misconduct to provide independent check on police. The officer-involved shooting investigations that the Civilian Oversight Board reviews, though, follow a specific process that other forms of police misconduct complaints do not follow. It's pretty convoluted and lengthy. These investigations begin at the police department.
There is a special division that was set up, actually in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown, that was incorporated into this process and the Civilian Oversight Board was established called the Force Investigation Unit. After every officer-involved shooting, this unit conducts its own investigation, essentially gathering evidence about what happened during the shooting. They compile that evidence and they send a report to the Circuit Attorney's office. That evidence is supposed to help the Circuit Attorney decide whether or not she wants to charge the officer criminally for his or her behavior in this situation. Once the Circuit Attorney makes a charging decision, that report is sent over to internal affairs.
Internal affairs conducted its own investigation, this time looking for violations of department protocol that the officer may have participated in. Then after the internal affairs concludes its investigation, that information gets sent off to a congregation of high-ranking police officials within the department called the Deadly Force Tactical Review Board. That board is supposed to essentially review the findings of the investigation thus far and make any determination about whether or not department procedure needs to be tweaked to prevent certain things from happening in the field. It's only after all that happens that the police commissioner can then sign off on the investigation thus far and send it over to the Civilian Oversight Board.
Nancy Solomon: Is it that last step where things are breaking down?
Champe Barton: People aren't 100% sure where this process is breaking down, but the suspicion that I heard most frequently in my reporting was that it was actually breaking down in the handoff between the Force Investigation Unit and the Circuit Attorney's office. Essentially, many people, activists in the city think that there is a hang-up on that point of the process, either with the Force Investigation Unit's investigations or with the Circuit Attorney's office charging decisions. There has been some public back and forth between these two entities in the past about these investigations.
The Circuit Attorney's office has basically said in the past that the investigations that they were getting from the Force Investigation Unit were incomplete, were not as thorough as they needed to be, which was preventing the Circuit Attorney from being able to make a thorough and responsible charging decision in these cases. The Circuit Attorney has put together her own team of investigators in the past that now does a parallel investigation to the Force Investigation Unit, but she is still primarily reliant on the Force Investigation Unit's report in order to make a charging decision in each of these cases.
The police department, on the other hand, has implied that the Circuit Attorney is dragging her feet when it comes to making these charging decisions. When I asked the police department where these cases had ended up or where they were at, what stage they were at this process, they told me that every officer-involved shooting that the Force Investigation Unit has reviewed, has been sent over to the Circuit Attorney's office, which would imply that if these investigations haven't been completed yet, that Circuit Attorney's office has just not made their charging decision, which has prevented the process from moving forward.
However, there's no confirmation about whether or not all of these cases have made it through the Circuit Attorney's office and are now stuck in internal affairs, or if they're stuck at Deadly Force Tactical Review Board, or if the police commissioner is holding on to them. It's really hard to tell. At the present moment, we just don't really know. The Circuit Attorney did not get back to me in time for the stories, so I wasn't able to confirm whether or not she had made charging decisions in a majority of these cases.
Nancy Solomon: What is a circuit attorney exactly?
Champe Barton: The circuit attorney is essentially one of the chief prosecutors in St. Louis. Her job is essentially to decide whether or not to prosecute these officers criminally for any of their conduct on the force.
Nancy Solomon: What are the activists and families in St. Louis saying about what they want in terms of how to fix this process which clearly isn't working?
Champe Barton: It's hard to say. There isn't a unanimous agreement about how to solve this problem. Some activists that I spoke with in the city have long campaign for the Civilian Oversight Board to be moved out of The Department of Public Safety in St. Louis. As it exists presently, The Department of Public Safety oversees both the police department and the Civilian Oversight Board, which some activists are uncomfortable with. They feel like that's too close to the police department, that the person that is overseeing civilian oversight also has the stake in the police department and that it creates conflicts of interest.
They would like for the Civilian Oversight Board to be moved outside of The Department of Public Safety and given its own agency that is run by civilians. Now, it's not clear how that process would change the review process itself. Other than that, no one has really had an idea of how to speed up the review process. Mostly because we just don't really know at what stage of the civilian review process these investigations are getting hung up. However, the bottom line, and like you said, this process just isn't working, it's not providing the transparency it was intended to provide.
The families of police shooting victims and other victims of police violence are left in a difficult position because this Civilian Oversight Board was designed to provide them some closure or comfort that the investigation of police misconduct or police violence would have the civilian check. That you would have a non-police agency that could examine the behavior of the department and decide whether or not that behavior was responsible. At the present moment, that just isn't happening in officer-involved shootings, which are the highest-profile and most dramatic instances of police violence.
One family member that I spoke to who had lost his brother in 2013 to a police shooting, described it to me basically like leaving an open wound that they just are unable to close because they're constantly skeptical of whether or not the police conducted themselves appropriately.
Nancy Solomon: Champe Barton is a reporter with The Trace. Champe, thanks so much for joining us.
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