Kansas City is the only major city in the country where elected city leaders do not control the local police department, but a state-appointed police board does.
Until 2013, St. Louis was in the same boat.
However, the city gained local control of its police department after a 2012 statewide referendum.
Now, 10 years after the city officially reclaimed police oversight, a Missouri Senate bill aims to bring the St. Louis Police Department back under state control, a policy originally born out of a bid by pro- of slavery to maintain control 150 years ago.
“State control originally took hold in St. Louis because Claiborne Jackson, the segregated governor of Missouri during the Civil War, feared a city where the Union would control the arsenal,” said Dan Isom, director of public safety at St. Louis. St.Louis. for the Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.
The bill proposes that Republican Gov. Mike Parson appoint four police commissioners, who would sit on a board along with the St. Louis board chairman. The police council will take over the city’s police department on Aug. 28.
It states that the mayor or any city official would be penalized $1,000 for “any single offense of obstructing the council,” as well as be “forever disqualified from holding or holding any city office.”
The city would be required to maintain no fewer than 1,142 members in the police force under the legislation.
Sen. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles County Republican, said he was concerned about crime in the city spreading through his district.
“Our goal is to create a safer City of St. Louis, a stronger region that protects people whenever they want to bring their families into their businesses in the City of St. Louis,” he said.
Schroer also said that promises the former mayor made 10 years ago to reduce crime have not been fulfilled.
Isom, who was the city’s police chief in 2012 when the referendum was passed, countered that the city has made strides to reduce violent crime, despite a continued push by state lawmakers to ease gun restrictions since 2007.
“Missouri has some of the most flexible gun laws in the country,” Isom said.
Isom said when the Missouri legislature adopted concealed carry without a permit in 2016, law enforcement officials warned of the impact but were ignored.
From 2016 to 2020, Isom said that gun homicides in the city increased by 50%, from 177 to 266.
However, from 2020 to 2021, he said the city’s homicide rate decreased by more than 25% and the violent crime rate decreased by 23% in the same time period.
“The return to local control has not resulted in an increase in violent crime,” Isom said. “A rise in guns has increased the violence on our streets.”
Isom also said that stripping local elected officials of the authority to lead police in St. Louis would also disconnect police officers from the communities they serve.
“When a local mayor is in charge of their own police force, they can act as a translator between community needs and police imperatives,” Isom said. “Removing this local connection will breed feelings of distrust between officers and the community, making officers less safe.”
Two St. Louis police associations – the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association and the Ethical Society of Police – testified in support of the legislation. The two associations are currently suing the city to block a law that expands civilian control of the police.
“The Ethical Society of Police extends its unwavering support and is proud to have worked hand-in-hand with Senator Nick Schroer on this vital piece of legislation,” said Sgt. Donnell Walters, president of the association, said in a written statement.
Association leaders said low pay and keeping officers in the city were a huge problem.
Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said the officer shortage isn’t just a St. Louis problem.
“We have a shortage of officers with the Highway Patrol, and they are under state control,” Williams said. “It’s not monolithic for the city of St. Louis, so I want that fact to be out there.”
While the hearing’s focus was on the police, Republican lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety — a committee that doesn’t include any senators representing the city — spent a good deal of time criticizing the attorney-elect of St. Louis.
Republican lawmakers have made it clear that challenging the authority of circuit attorney Kimberly Gardner — a progressive black Democrat — is a top priority this year.
A House bill, sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts R-Joplin, would allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in the city of St. Louis for five years to prosecute violent crime cases. That’s if the governor determines that “there is a threat to public safety and health” in the city based on “review of various pertinent statistics.” Jason Bean, R-Holcomb, asked Schroer if there was anything lawmakers could do to force Gardner to pursue the cases.
Schroer said he is working on introducing a separate bill to address Gardner’s “refusal” to prosecute some cases.
“Ultimately, I hope we can do the job the Senate did a couple of years ago in trying to address this issue,” Schroer said, referring to the failed 2020 proposals to strip Gardner’s jurisdiction over violent crime cases. “And hopefully we can bring it in the house and fix that as well.”
If both Schroer’s and Roberts’ bills pass this legislative session, the governor would have the ability to appoint people to oversee both the St. Louis City Police Department and the prosecutor’s office.
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.