ACLU files suit to block St. Louis local police control ballot initiative

ST. LOUIS, MO &#8211 The ACLU, an advocate for city control of the St. Louis police, is suing to block a referendum that could accomplish that goal, saying the ballot has flawed wording that would hide officer discipline from the public.

But Jeff Roorda, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, complained Monday, “This lawsuit is without merit and doesn’t offer a single legal argument.”

Both organizations are key players in a delicate proposal to try to return police control to City Hall for the first time since the Civil War Era. The department is run by the Board of Police Commissioners, composed of the mayor and four appointees of the governor.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, on behalf of four activists, against the secretary of state’s office, claims ballot language is misleading because it fails to warn voters of a conflict with Missouri’s Sunshine Law and Racial Profiling Law.

Specifically, the ACLU says the measure would give the city’s civil service commission exclusive authority over all disciplinary matters and close the records to everyone else.

That would hide documents now available under the Sunshine Law and thwart creation of a meaningful civilian review panel — a concept born from the Racial Profiling Law, said John Chasnoff, program director for the ACLU.

The officers’ association is against opening disciplinary records involving police personnel who have been cleared of criminal misconduct, said Roorda. He said the ACLU’s reference to the profiling law was “race baiting.”

Roorda also said that civilian review boards have proven ineffective and divisive in communities which have them. He called them a “way for those who are in the market for it to drive a wedge between the community and law enforcement.” He added, “This whole initiative was about bringing the community and the police together and it’s disappointing to see the ACLU try to sabotage that.”

While both groups now support local control, the ACLU wants it done by legislation while the association wants a public vote.

The association sued last year over its own complaint about ballot language but dropped the action in November after a pro-change group funded by retired investor Rex Sinquefield pledged to file a ballot proposition mirroring compromise legislation agreeable to both Mayor Francis Slay and the officers.

Along the way, Chasnoff said, language was charged “with perhaps unforeseen consequences.”

Right now, if there is an allegation of criminal conduct against a police officer, any subsequent disciplinary records are open, Chasnoff said. “This would close those records,” he complained. “St. Louis will be operating under one Sunshine Law while the rest of the state will be operating under a different Sunshine Law.”

He said the ballot initiative was put together by a much smaller group of people, noting “We don’t know what their motives were, but we ended up with language that is not acceptable.”

From The Kansas City Star.

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