Washington Examiner

Republican lawmakers are pushing for state control of the St. Louis police department, claiming it will improve public safety. However, this move has sparked controversy and opposition from local officials and community members who fear it will undermine local control and accountability. The debate continues as both sides make their case for what’s best for the city.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — It’s been a decade since St. Louis gained local control of its police force for the first time since the Civil War. However, the city is now facing more murders than ever before, and Missouri’s Republican lawmakers are once again pushing for a state takeover of the police force.

The debate over policing power in St. Louis is a politically and racially charged issue, similar to those that have rocked other cities and states this year. But data suggests that neither state nor local control may make much difference when it comes to stemming homicides.

“Lots of things matter a whole lot more, like widespread social unrest, the economy crashing, that sort of thing,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who analyzed the city’s crime statistics.

With violent crime troubling many large cities, Republicans nationwide have pushed a tough-on-crime agenda that would make it harder for the accused to get out of jail on bail and lock up people longer when convicted of certain offenses. Now, a proposed state takeover of the St. Louis police department is being touted as a way to fight crime.

Missouri provides a unique case study in the effectiveness of state or local control of police departments.

For much of its history, police in Missouri’s two largest cities of St. Louis and Kansas City had been overseen by state boards appointed predominantly by the governor. That ended for St. Louis in 2013, after voters approved a statewide ballot measure to return police oversight to city officials. Around then, a mayor’s task force in Kansas City narrowly recommended continuing state control over its police.

Despite the slightly larger increase in St. Louis, “there is no statistically significant difference between the change in homicide in St. Louis and the change in homicide in Kansas City since local control was restored in St. Louis,” said Rosenfeld.

Yet some state lawmakers contend it’s time to declare local police control a failure in St. Louis.

The Republican-led state House passed a bill last month to empower GOP Gov. Mike Parson to appoint four St. Louis police board commissioners. The mayor, Democrat Tishaura O. Jones, would serve as the fifth commissioner. The Republican-led Senate is expected to debate the plan before its session ends in mid-May.

Jones said the takeover effort in her city “isn’t about public safety.”

“This is about power and politics,” she said. “If you look at all of the cities where we are facing control or overarching authority over local law enforcement, what’s the trend? They’re all led by Black mayors.”

Lawmakers have exerted control over liberal, largely minority communities in Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Mississippi.

President Joe Biden recently signed a Republican-sponsored resolution nullifying the District of Columbia’s new crime laws, including measures eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and reducing maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking, and robbery.

Tensions flared in Mississippi as the majority-white and Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to expand the territory of a state-run police department inside the majority Black capital city, which is governed by Democrats. GOP Gov. Tate Reeves signed the measure into law Friday.

Beyond debating control of the St. Louis police, Missouri lawmakers are also considering a bill that would allow the state to take over prosecution of violent crimes in the city. Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey is seeking to oust the locally elected prosecutor, Democratic Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, alleging negligence. If a judge agrees and removes Gardner, Parson would appoint her replacement.

Policing in St. Louis comes with a stigma of association to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in 2014. Officer Darren Wilson was not charged in the death of the Black 18-year-old, but months of protests followed, along with criticism of policing practices across the St. Louis area.

Racial justice protests newly spread nationwide after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis officer in 2020. Some law enforcement agencies have since struggled to recruit and retain officers; the St. Louis and Kansas City departments each have vacancy rates around 20%.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones

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