A Missouri bill originally intended to target St. Louis and its crime rates was later expanded to potentially affect Kansas City.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts, a Republican from Joplin, is a blanket public safety package that, among other things, would allow Republican Gov. Mike Parson to appoint a special prosecutor to any district or jurisdiction of Joplin’s attorney He charges for five years if, after reviewing crime data, he believes there is a threat to public safety, or if the area had 35 homicides for every 100,000 people in the previous year.
The original version of the bill only affected St. Louis, but the legislation has been expanded to include any jurisdiction that the governor determines has a public safety emergency. The governor would have the power to directly appoint a special prosecutor, under the current wording of the bill. The bill passed the Missouri House on Feb. 9 and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate.
Kansas City would be harder to target because the bill states that the governor’s appointment is in the jurisdiction of a circuit or an attorney, not in specific cities. Kansas City spans four different counties, unlike the city of St. Louis, which is in its own jurisdiction. Thus, the governor would be unable to assign a special prosecutor to the entire city unless each of the four counties were assigned its own special prosecutors.
Jackson County, which accounts for nearly half of Kansas City’s population, had about 27 homicides per 100,000 people in 2022, and Kansas City had about 32, said Michael Mansur, director of communications for the Jackson County attorney Jean Peters Baker. In 2020, Kansas City’s deadliest year to date, Mansur said the city nearly reached 35 homicides per 100,000 people, but Jackson County did not.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said if the bill passes, it would be a setback for the city and would be unwise and unfair.
“It has everything to do with controlling largely black political figures. It has everything to do with political disagreements, it has nothing to do with public safety,” Lucas said.
He said he believes Missouri Republicans introduced the legislation not with the intention of curbing crime, but to make a political point and target St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a progressive Democrat who is black .
“For me, the concern is that as we spend time on these sorts of things that aren’t solutions, and these are just political talking points, what are we actually going to do to address the problem of violent crime?” Luke said.
Rep. Mark Sharp, a Democrat from Kansas City, said the bill likely won’t apply to Kansas City because the city doesn’t fall under a jurisdiction.
“If Kansas City was built like St. Louis City, then I think we probably have something really serious to worry about,” said Sharp, who is the chairman of the House Special Committee on Urban Issues.
Missouri Democrats also argued that allowing the governor to appoint special prosecutors only serves to attack Gardner. Roberts said the bill was misinterpreted as an anti-prosecutorial law and said he was only concerned with prosecuting people who committed crimes in St. Louis and went without punishment.
“If this sort of thing was happening in any city, regardless of who the DA was, I would be concerned. This is a public safety issue for me,” Roberts said.
Rep. Chris Brown, a Republican from Kansas City, said he usually wouldn’t support legislation that could infringe on local scrutiny, but St. Louis crime statistics have become too alarming. The city of St. Louis had 200 total homicides in 2022 and Kansas City had 169, according to data from each police department.
“I think there’s just a general consensus that we’re at a breaking point, we’re just at a point where something is going to have to be done,” Brown said.
He said that in a perfect world, they wouldn’t have to make such a drastic effort to deal with crime, but he said the people and law enforcement in St. Louis needed relief.
Representative Ashley Bland-Manlove, a Democrat from Kansas City, said there are both positives and negatives to the bill, but she was against allowing the governor to appoint special prosecutors.
“Local control only works for Republicans when it is for a homogeneous group that has the same thought process. Not for when it’s people who might think negatively about them or their ideas,” Bland-Manlove said.
He said assigning another prosecutor would not stop the crime. Instead, he said they should focus on what people lack that could drive them to commit crimes. She said funding after-school programs, YMCAs, and job training programs would be some of the best ways to combat criminal behavior in adolescents.
Rep. Marlene Terry, a Democrat from St. Louis, said prosecutors are elected by voters and imposing state-appointed prosecutors would take away people’s voices.
“That’s when I have to say it’s so unfair, so unfair, and it’s also racist, because you find that it’s the smaller communities, the urban communities that they’re trying to control,” Terry said. “And I just feel it’s wrong.”
Other aspects of the bill
The lengthy legislation would also help detainees receive documentation such as their social security card or birth certificate before being released. The bill would also criminalize the disclosure of personal information about judges and create a reimbursement program for people who complete training for a peace officer license.
The bill would also give judges certain factors to consider in determining an individual’s bail conditions, making changes to the minimum sentence, allowing school resource officers to carry guns in schools, and establishing Blair’s Law, among other things.
Blair’s Law would make it a felony to fire a gun for criminal negligence in any municipality.
Democrats have been trying to pass the Blair Act for years, and Sharp said it was important it passed the House early in the session.
Sharp said he doesn’t think appointing a special prosecutor will have the effect Republicans expected, but said he voted for the bill because of what he called positive aspects, such as the Blair law.
Black Caucus mobilizes against the legislation
During the final vote on the bill on Feb. 9, the floor debate was cut short in the middle of Rep. Kevin Windham, a Hillsdale Democrat, reciting a story about how Mississippi’s majority-white House of Representatives recently approved a bill to create a separate court system and expanded police force, appointed from all white state officials, for Jackson, a city with a majority black population.
House Speaker Dean Plocher, a St. Louis County Republican, told Windham that he was off topic, and the House leadership immediately moved to vote on the bill. No further discussion was allowed.
The quick halt to the debate sparked outrage from Democrats, with Representative Marlene Terry, a Democrat from St. Louis, calling it a racist.
Terry said lawmakers cannot adequately represent their communities unless they are allowed to at least speak on bills to present their concerns.
“I know when laws are made here. They are not made for people who look like me,” Terry said. “They are made for destruction.”
The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus hosted a rally Wednesday in response to the bill, and Plocher cut Windham short. To an audience of about 50, consisting of other state representatives, NAACP members, activists and supporters, Terry condemned the actions of Missouri Republicans.
“We have to take back our power. We will be recognized, we will use our voices and show them how powerful we are,” Terry said.