In a vote watched closely in Kansas City, Missourians approved a statewide ballot measure in 2012 to return control of the St. Louis Police Department to the city itself. Just over a decade later, the Missouri legislature is debating multiple pieces of legislation to reverse that decision and put the department under state control.
Proponents say that crime and police understaffing point to significant problems with local control, and that a state takeover would help counter the problems the city and the police department are facing.
Opponents point to Kansas City’s long history with state control of its police department, which they say has done little to curb violent crime or improve staffing issues. They also draw attention to Missouri’s loose gun laws, where they say some changes could improve the safety of all Missourians.
The ongoing debate over the Civil War-era policy of state control of local police showcases the divide between Missouri’s urban areas, where much of the minority population is located, and the more rural and less diverse areas of the state.
The debate this year also emphasizes the legislature’s often combative attitude toward the state’s two largest cities, especially St. Louis. Along with the push to return policing in St. Louis to state control, the legislature and state Attorney General Andrew Bailey are in the midst of efforts to remove St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.
Under the policing legislation, which passed the House earlier this month, governance of the St. Louis Police Department would be much like the structure in Kansas City. The mayor would no longer have control over the department, but would serve on a state-appointed board of police commissioners, alongside four other members who are appointed by the governor. The city of St. Louis would still be the primary funder of the police department, and would be required to pay for salary increases.
The state Senate now has the power to make changes to the House legislation. However, a bill sponsored by St. Charles County Republican Sen. Nick Schroer that passed out of a Senate committee in early February is similar to the House version.
In November, Missourians approved Amendment 4, which would allow the legislature to increase minimum funding for any police force controlled by a state board of commissioners. A separate piece of legislation passed in 2022 raised the minimum percentage of city funds that must be allocated to the police force, but there is so far no discussion about raising minimum funding in St. Louis. St. Louis would join Kansas City in being subject to funding mandates from the General Assembly if the legislation were to pass.
Lora McDonald, executive director of the advocacy group More2, said her organization is working to build a voter base to support Kansas City regaining local control. She said that having the state run the police board is impractical for Kansas City and St. Louis, and the cities should be able to unilaterally allocate money for their police forces without state intervention.
“There’s no reason why anybody should want this done in their community. And there’s certainly no reason why anyone in Kansas City, Missouri, should want this,” McDonald said. “We want a bloc of voters built so we can start influencing statewide elections and every local election, so we are not electing any people who are going to fight us over local control.”
The various pieces of legislation in Jefferson City have primarily been sponsored by Republicans who live outside of St. Louis city but reside in St. Louis County or nearby St. Charles County. The St. Louis Police Officers Association supports the change, as does the Ethical Society of Police, a union that represents minority police officers. Newly appointed St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy has spoken against the Senate version of the bill, and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones opposes a change.
“State control of our police department is not going to make our citizens safer,” Jones said in a radio interview. “We will not be able to respond accordingly and swiftly to changes in policy. It’ll bring more politics into public safety. Under the previous state control board, politics was in every decision regarding our police department. And right now, … we just hired a new police chief. We want to give him the opportunity to lead as he has led in other cities.”
Would state control in St. Louis help curb crime?
Republican Rep. Brad Christ, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, represents a district just outside of St. Louis city. He said his bill “takes the politics out of policing.” He and other House members who have introduced similar legislation contend that crime from St. Louis has increased since the city took control of its police force and has spread to their districts, which is why a state-controlled police board is needed.
St. Louis regained control of its police force in 2013. Since then, the city has struggled to reduce violent crime. Its homicide count was 120 in 2013 and 198 in 2022. But numerous cities around the country have struggled with rising crime rates over the last decade. That has been the case in Kansas City, where the police force is governed by a state-appointed board. Police in Kansas City reported 169 homicides in 2022.
Empower Missouri, a social justice advocacy organization, believes that in reducing crime, attempts to address poverty would be more successful than moving control of the police to the state.
“As an anti-poverty organization, Empower Missouri holds a strong belief that crime is often a symptom of poverty,” Mallory Rusch, the group’s executive director, wrote in an online post about state control. “In the City of St. Louis, over 20% of our residents live below the federal poverty line. Communities ravished by poverty can become breeding grounds for drug use and other illegal activities. We can choose to address these issues through policing alone, or we can seek to address the root cause of the issue, working to ensure that every Missourian has an equal opportunity to thrive.”
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, a Democrat from St. Louis, said during a legislative debate that addressing poverty and improving stability through things like raising the minimum wage would be more impactful for his community.
“It would have been very appropriate, in my opinion, to talk to several residents that live in St. Louis city to figure out how we work together because… a lot of us will say it’s bigger than policing,” Aldridge said, addressing members from outside St. Louis city who introduced the legislation.
“We will not be able, in my area, to police ourselves out of crime,” he added. “You want to talk about crime? You can talk about how we make sure that communities like mine have livable wages. How do you make sure we have stable homes? How do we reverse policies that have been put in place strategically to disinvest in Black and brown communities like mine?”
During debate on Christ’s legislation at the beginning of March, Democrats pointed out that some law enforcement officials have said that Missouri law stands in their way when trying to prevent violent crime. At the beginning of 2022, 60 Missouri police chiefs filed a brief with the courts to support a suit against Missouri’s Second Amendment Preservation Act. They said the law weakens “law enforcement’s ability to defend and protect Missouri citizens.” A federal judge recently struck down the law.
“Law enforcement tells us again and again that things like the Second Amendment Preservation Act keeps them from keeping their communities safe,” Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit, said during debate on the bill. “And this body says, ‘Well, we don’t believe law enforcement.’ So I’m really glad today to hear that we’re all listening to law enforcement when it comes to state control.”
Speaking with sarcasm, Ingle continued: “If we’re going to take hold of another police department, maybe we should listen to the one that we’ve already taken control over, and that we’ve had control over for 100-and-how-many-years. I’m glad to hear that we’ve really decreased violent crime in Kansas City. That’ll be news to my neighbors.”
Those in favor of state control hope to solve officer retention problems
Under some versions of the legislation in play, officers would receive raises and bumps to overtime pay. Some lawmakers believe those types of measures along with state control would help with officer retention.
Officer shortages have plagued police departments across Missouri and nationwide. Rep. Jeff Myers, R-Warrenton, a former Missouri State Highway Patrol officer, said that the “politicization and anti-law enforcement sentiment” have led to the decline of retention in St. Louis.
“While recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers in general is an issue faced by more than just the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, their losses have been exacerbated,” Myers said.
St. Louis police officers just entered into a new contract, with officers set to receive one-year raises from 8% to 12%. City leaders bargained to remove the raises if the police force were to be transferred to state control, although a state-mandated raise is currently included in the House version of the state control bill.
The legislature is considering other measures to help with officer recruitment and retention in Kansas City. So far, the proposals have passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support and would do things like remove salary caps for all ranks of officers. Plans include an emergency clause to “maintain a competitive pay scale to aid in recruitment and retention of Kansas City police officers.”