Missouri moves to tighten police accountability

Missouri moves to tighten police accountability

Brian Williams grew up in Ferguson, where Michael Brown Jr.’s shooting death sparked a national movement for police accountability in 2014. 

Four years later, Williams was elected to the Missouri Senate as a Democrat representing his hometown district. 

Williams, now 37, recalls times he was pulled over for “just driving while black.” 

“I was handcuffed on the sidewalk, and my constitutional rights were violated,” he said. “That was business as usual growing up in Ferguson, in North County.”

His experiences, Williams said, aren’t unique.

“That’s what motivates me today to not only fight for police accountability,” he said, “but also make sure we build trust and ultimately provide an opportunity to have good officers and eliminate the bad ones.” 

While Missouri activists have led the national call for “re-envisioning public safety” since 2014, the state has not led in passing legislation or policies that would address police misconduct.

But there has been recent movement.

In December, the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission recommended requiring background checks for officers, as well as holding law enforcement leadership accountable for who they hire. 

The move addresses one of the biggest challenges in holding officers accountable — making sure officers who are fired or under investigation in one agency aren’t able to hop jobs to another agency. 

Williams hopes to take the POST Commission’s actions a step further, with legislation that would prevent police chiefs and sheriffs from being sued if they disclose information about former employees who were disciplined for misconduct.

“This offers the protection needed to complete a comprehensive background investigation,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak, who sits on the POST Commission.

Williams’ bill also would ban chokeholds, specifically neck restraints that restrict air flow, and would prohibit an officer from having “sexual conduct” with someone they’ve detained or who is being held in jail. 

Unlike previous attempts at enacting police reforms, Williams’ bill was lauded by numerous law enforcement groups at a Senate hearing on Monday.

It gives advocates and other legislators hope that these same leaders will be able to collaborate on other legislation, including a Senate bill to establish a statewide use-of-force database.

Marshak agrees with the idea of requiring every agency to submit its data to the F.B.I.’s Use of Force Data Collection. Participation is currently voluntary. But he said creating a database at the state level would require a lot of input from law enforcement officials.

“I would support gathering data at the state level if it was done correctly and accounted for the diversity of force encounters,” Marshak said. 

A ban on chokeholds

Missouri could join 14 other states and the District of Columbia in banning chokeholds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“There’s more that unites us than divides us,” Williams said at the Senate hearing.

That statement was echoed by both police union leaders and NAACP representatives who testified in support of his bill.

Brad Lemon, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), said of Williams’ bill, “Our FOP truly supports this and hopes this gets through quickly.”

If the bill passes, Missouri would join 14 other states and the District of Columbia in banning chokeholds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lemon noted that restraints that restrict air flow are already prohibited at the Kansas City Police Department.

“If this passes and someone uses [a chokehold], they’d be subject to termination,” said Lemon. “Then the prosecutor could review it for criminal charges.”

Williams’ legislation also provides a level of immunity for police chiefs and sheriffs to disclose “bad police officers who are doing the wrong thing in the community,” he said. 

No vote was taken during the hearing, but the Judicial and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee is likely to vote on the bill next week, said Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, one of the committee members.

While many celebrated the collaboration, the version of the bill that the  committee heard on Monday was considerably pared down from the original. 

The introduced bill included eliminating no-knock search warrants, a measure that one other state has passed after Louisville officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor, 26, in a house raid.

Also removed from the original bill was a provision mandating that law enforcement agencies have policies on investigating officer-involved deaths. It would’ve required officers to intervene when other officers are inappropriately using physical force, and law enforcement agencies to report each use of excessive force to the attorney general. And law enforcement agencies would not have been able to obtain certain military surplus equipment from the federal government.

While he didn’t get everything he wanted in the bill, Williams said it was still a tremendous feat being a Democrat in a Republican-dominated legislature to earn the level of support he has thus far.

“If you were to put this story in front of anybody in the world,” he said, “they would think it was impossible.”

Many of the deleted provisions are in bills on the House side introduced by Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, and Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-St. Louis County. 

All three legislators are all collaborating, they said.

“It’s our intention to keep in touch to make sure we are on the same page,” Dogan said.

Aldridge’s bill goes a step further than Dogan’s in banning neck restraints that both restrict airflow and blood flow. 

“Any blood or air that’s cut off to the brain can be deadly,” Aldridge said.

Police departments in St. Louis and St. Louis County banned all chokeholds and neck restraints more than a decade ago. The Kansas City Police Department still uses the lateral vascular neck restraint that restricts blood flow and makes individuals pass out, though some groups are advocating to change that.

Use-of-Force database

Requiring law enforcement agencies to submit use of force data to the F.B.I. is a “no brainer,” said Marshak, sheriff of Jefferson County

It’s free to Missouri, he said, wouldn’t be much extra work for local jurisdictions and it’s supported universally by the National Sheriffs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The drawback is that the FBI doesn’t regularly report the data to the public.

In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to establish a national use of force database — an action also taken by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Sen. Steve Roberts

A bill sponsored by Roberts would require the Missouri Attorney General Office to compile a use-of-force database and produce an annual report of how each agency in the state fared.

Missouri’s database could eventually feed into the national database. However, Marshak said the discussion needs to be focused on definitions and what counts as use of force.

“Currently, there are no national standards on use of force,” he said, “so structure from the national level and state level would have benefits.”

In Jefferson County alone, Marshak said, many agencies have varying definitions for what “use of force” is, as well as how and when they are documented. 

“Standardization could be productive, assuming it’s done right,” he said. “Without comprehensive data, critics will use portions of the data to argue for their one-sided narrative.”

Roberts has given his bill to the FOP to review and provide input, he said. He also recognizes that establishing a state database would not be free like participating in the FBI’s database.

But he said, “Transparency is important, and that is something that our citizens deserve.”

Roberts expects his bill to get committee hearing next week.

Background checks

On Dec. 15, the POST Commission voted to approve four recommendations that intend to increase transparency in hiring law enforcement officers. 

First, every POST licensee will be required to register and participate in the Missouri Rap Back program, which is also used for background checks on Missouri teachers. 

According to POST program director Jeremy Spratt, about 15,000 police officers in the state are not registered with the program. 

“While some agencies have layers of checks and balances, most do not,” said Marshak, who presented the subcommittee’s recommendations to the full commission during the Dec. 15 meeting.

Secondly, all candidates seeking licensing from POST will be required to sign and submit the background waiver form, which will allow potential law enforcement employers the opportunity to conduct background investigations.

“Currently, that’s not a requirement, and many law enforcement CEOs are reluctant to release information about police officers,” Marshak said. “And the state may be reluctant to share that information as well for liability reasons.”

The third recommendation requires a “letter of acknowledgement” from the agency CEO that they have conducted a background investigation, reviewed the POST discipline report and acknowledged who they are hiring.

“This gets to the issue that all too often law enforcement agencies continue to hire problem police officers that jump from one department to another to another while there’s an open investigation,” Marshak said. Sometimes agency CEOs hire “problem officers” not knowing of their background because they need to hire officers quickly. This will require them to take a step back first.

And finally, a person won’t be able to obtain a license in Missouri if it’s been revoked in another state. 

“If you’re not good enough to be a commissioned police officer in another state,” he said, “we all collectively agree that maybe you shouldn’t be a police officer in the state of Missouri.”

Sandy Karsten, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, will now look into what it will take to implement these recommendations, a DPS spokesman said.

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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