By State Representative Joshua Peters
Currently the Missouri Highway Patrol may be called in at the “special request” of any sheriff or police chief to assist in an investigation. That power is found under RMS section 43.180. Routinely, the Highway Patrol has been called upon when a local jurisdiction feels there is an inherent or perceived conflict of interest in having a local law enforcement agency investigate city or county officials or employees. How much more so are they needed now to investigate cases of the use of deadly force against civilians?
There is not just a perception of a conflict of interest having a police agency investigate one of its own officers, but a very real and substantial conflict of interest. How can the community feel that there will be an impartial investigation of the evidence and facts when those doing so may have worked side-by-side with the officer involved, may have spent off-duty leisure time together, belong to the same professional association, and have to be able to count on one another in tough, even deadly situations. There is a code of silence no matter how many police chiefs want the public to believe there isn’t.
This is not a new problem. Thirty-seven years ago the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) passed a resolution stating:
“We deplore those instances where people are injured or killed by the police’s use of deadly force under circumstances where neither the life of the police officer, nor that of any other person, was endangered… it is our contention that the unwarranted use of deadly force serves to perpetuate the schism between police and community; it generates fear, hostility, a climate of suspicion, indifference, and noncooperation, to the detriment of law enforcement.”
The resolution grew out of a workshop that was even more prophetic. How prophetic? It was held right here in St. Louis on June 23, 1978, when the administration of Mayor James Conway helped welcome eleven national organizations and the U.S. Justice Department to a workshop on the “Police Use of Excessive and Deadly Force”.
Here is what some participants said at the conference:
“One of the speakers discussed the problem that arises when, even under satisfactory administrative procedures, inadequate investigation at the lower police levels makes for poor prosecution. This problem is compounded by the reluctance of juries to convict a police officer. Another participant vocalized an additional complication: the questionable enthusiasm of some prosecutors in pressing such cases against police.”
Why 37 years later, for the love of Heaven, are we still dealing with the same problem?
Because faith has broken down, over such a long period of time, between law enforcement and some of the communities they serve when it comes to the use of deadly force, it is imperative that trust in the system we restored by having an independent state agency take the lead on such investigations. Several other states, including Connecticut, already have in place legislation to do just that and it is time Missouri join them.
I am proposing legislation that I feel should be able to gather bi-partisan support that the well respected and professional Missouri Highway Patrol take charge of all future investigations of cases of use of deadly force by police officers in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Since the local law enforcement agencies would have been expending time and manpower on such cases anyway, the legislation should provide for the State of Missouri billing the local jurisdiction for the time and expenses of the state investigation. Therefore the legislation would have no fiscal impact on the Missouri budget.
When you look at the cost of stubbornly trying to conduct such investigations within departments, either because of concern for managing the outcomes or out of a false sense holding onto power, our community has suffered enough. The image of our state and region nationally has suffered enough. Families have suffered enough wondering if justice would be done. Everyone involved, the community, the state all would benefit from putting these sensitive, tense and highly emotional investigations in the hands of a trusted, professional group third party agency… the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Here is the link to the 1979 NOBLE Report: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/132789NCJRS.pdf