Senators debate proposal to place St. Louis police under state control

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has been under local control for the past decade, but some lawmakers would like the agency to be overseen by the state.

In the face of rising crime in the city of St. Louis, newly elected Senator Nick Schroer, a Republican from St. Charles County, wants to bring the police department back under state control. His proposal is similar to Kansas City, where the police department is under the control of a police agency.

“At current rates, more people will be murdered under local control in the city of St. Louis over the next four years than there was on 9/11,” Schroer said Wednesday morning.

He said his legislation Senate Bill 78could help get the city of St. Louis back on track.

“It takes out the political dynamic and distrust of the department’s administration and puts it back in the control of a group of individuals who decide what’s best for the city,” Schroer said. “Companies have even communicated to their positions that they will either leave if crime is not eliminated or they have already left.”

But the city’s outgoing public safety director, Dan Isom, disagrees, saying changes aren’t needed.

“There is no evidence that returning control to the state will have a measurable impact on violent crime,” Isom said. “A simple law enforcement approach will not cure this. There was a time when the police department had over 2,000 officers and we still had the same problem.”

During a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, Isom was joined by the city’s new police chief, Robert Tracy.

“I’ve only been here a few weeks and I look under the hood and I look at the staffing, I look at the technology, I look at how we do things, I look at strategy and I look at how we respond to all of these crimes,” Tracy said.

Isom previously served as the St. Louis City Police Commissioner. When he was at the helm, the agency was under government control.

“One of the downsides of being separate from the city was the lack of cooperation with other parts of the city government,” Isom said. “Local scrutiny has led to more partnerships and a more holistic approach to fighting crime.”

Some members of the committee pointed fingers at the city’s prosecutor and mayor.

“How can the St. Louis Police Department thrive when they have virtually no support from the other civic leaders in the city of St. Louis,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring. “If I had a nickel every time, I’ve heard a St. Louis city official sit before this legislature promising improvements that if we just left them alone we could solve a lot of budget problems.”

Back in 2012, Missouri voters agreed to place the department under the control of the mayor’s office. Under Schroer’s plan, four members nominated by the governor would serve alongside the president of the city council of aldermen on a board of police commissioners. If approved and signed by the governor, the board would meet beginning in August 2023.

The Board of Police Commissioners would need to have 1,142 constables on the force at one time. Currently, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which represents the city’s police union, says the department has around 1,000 officers.

The bill would also increase the starting salary for civil servants by $4,000 in July 2024. Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said the current starting salary is about $50,000.

“Something has to give way,” said Schröder. “We have to protect the region and we have to protect the citizens, especially the citizens of the city of St. Louis, and they are not currently maintaining this police service under local, political control.”

Schroer represents St. Charles County, which is a concern for some.

“We’re not St. Louisans,” said Senator Greg Razer of D-Kansas City. “I’m a little uncomfortable as someone from Jackson County taking back control of St. Louis. I believe St. Louisans can govern themselves and I’m just uncomfortable with that.”

On the other side of the state, the Kansas City Police Department is controlled by the Board of Police Commissioners, which consists of four people appointed by the governor and the mayor.

“Kansas City is no safer under state control,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “I think in many ways it’s the opposite.”

Lucas said being under state control makes it harder to improve the pay rise, and many things require General Assembly approval in Jefferson City.

“It instead impacts our ability to respond to crime,” Lucas said. “That’s why no other major American city does it that way. I think the best way to make our communities safer is to listen to the people in our communities.

The Kansas City Police Department said it is shorting more than 300 officers, the largest number of vacancies the agency has had since 1972. Schroeder said the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has about 200 open officer positions.

On Thursday morning, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, will be heard in a House committee that would give the governor the power to appoint a special prosecutor to help with the backlogged crime cases. The appointee would serve a five-year term and be allowed to hire up to 15 assistant prosecutors and 15 associates.

Schroer said he supports the legislation and wants to submit something himself.

“If it’s a prosecutor who is overworked, understaffed, or a prosecutor unwilling to uphold that oath to protect and serve the community and prosecute the criminals, a panel of prosecutors can select someone who comes in and does this work,” said Schröer.

Roberts’ legislation is House bill 301. Senators debate proposal to place St. Louis police under state control

Sarah Y. Kim

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