When pre-filing for the 2023 Legislative Session opened in December, I braced myself for bills that are filed every year, that we fight every year, and that, for the most part, we’ve managed to help keep out of Missouri law. Our team monitors closely, sorting bills by coalition and starting to research the potential implications of filed legislation on low-income Missourians. While there is always legislation filed that our team doesn’t agree with, we all have our topics that get under our skin– this one is mine.
For the last several years, one certain member of the legislature has been obsessed with putting the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department under state control. I’ll start with a quick primer on the issue. During the Civil War, the State of Missouri put both the Kansas City and St. Louis Police Departments under state control for political reasons. Kansas City briefly regained control of their police department in the 1930s, only to have the state resume control when they realized that “political boss” Tom Pendergast was corruptly running the department, keeping officer wages low so that they would accept bribes to do his bidding.
St. Louis regained control in 2012 thanks to an initiative petition on the ballot as Prop A. Proposition A passed with a whopping 64 percent of a statewide vote, demonstrating that Missouri voters believe in local control of police. Today, Kansas City is the only city in the country to not have local control of its police department.
Over the last few years, this legislator has convinced several of his colleagues that the St. Louis Police Department needs to be put under state control, because crime is high in St. Louis, and crime will be reduced if the state controls our police department. This year, seven nearly identical bills were filed on the issue. These bills have the backing of both police unions in St. Louis City and the police union in St. Louis County. When I sat in the Senate hearing on the issue two weeks ago, I heard them talk about staffing shortages, wage issues, and other complaints about the way that the department is being run. The organization representing these officers seem to believe that state control of the department will fix these issues. The legislators seem to think that state control of the department will fix crime. Let’s briefly investigate both of these ideas.
Will state control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department decrease crime?
There is precisely zero evidence to support this claim. The crime rate has not changed significantly since St. Louis took back local control. When you look at index crime data (a commonly used crime statistic that evaluates eight of the most serious crimes in an area) for the years immediately preceding and following the state regaining control, there is little indication that any major change in power happened.
Now, crime has increased in St. Louis since 2019, but that is part of a national trend tied to the global COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic troubles. St. Louis has gone through similar periods of high crime in the past when under state control, most recently in the early 1990s.
So, there’s no evidence to suggest that state control has previously impacted crime in St. Louis. What about in other places? Well, the only other city in the country that was recently under state control was Baltimore, and they have the second highest murder rate in the country. Not compelling evidence. And Kansas City? They’ve been under state control for the last 80 years, and they have the eighth highest murder rate in the country. If nothing else, this should be a strong indicator that state control of the police force would do little to curb high crime rates.
Before we move on, I think that it is also very important to remember that St. Louis’s crime statistics are skewed since we are one of the only cities in the country where the city is a separate municipal entity from the county. Every major city in the United States has concentrated areas of poverty and crime, but the impact of those areas is diminished by being part of a larger urban area. If you were to combine St. Louis City and St. Louis County into one entity and look at our crime statistics per capita compared with other major urban areas, our crime rate drops significantly. According to a 2019 study of per capita murder rates, St. Louis City ranks number one in the nation at 64.54 murders per 100,000 residents. However, when you combine the murder rates in St. Louis City and St. Louis County, our per capita murder rate drops to 22.63 per 100,000 residents. The combined entity drops us into 14th place, between Washington DC, and North Charleston, South Carolina.
Will state control fix issues of staffing shortages, officer pay, and other internal issues?
Staffing shortages are a near universal issue at the moment. Police departments are having a particularly hard time finding officers in part because American confidence in police has reached an all-time low. State control isn’t going to fix that. The union negotiates officer wages with the city. It is possible that the state Board of Police Commissioners could require higher office pay, as they would control the police budget. Is that in the best interest of public safety? I couldn’t find any evidence to support that data, although higher police salaries certainly have the potential to attract more job seekers and fill some vacancies that have plagued the department.
But should the state intervene in this way to handle what amounts to labor negotiations between the police force and local leadership, elected by local taxpayers who fund the city budget, including police? We’d argue no. Local control is important for accountability.
As a country, we have generally come to a consensus about the type of policies that should be handled at the federal, state, and local levels. Generally, if a service is paid for by taxpayers at a local level, it is governed by local officials. If services are paid for by state taxes, they are governed by state officials. And if services are paid for by the federal government, they are governed by Congress.
Municipal law enforcement budgets in Missouri are funded by local taxes, and should be governed by local governments. In the last ten years since St. Louis has regained local control, there is more accountability of the police department to local government and therefore local taxpayers. In November 2020, a mere 17 percent of St. Louis city voters cast a ballot for Governor Mike Parson. While the state has elected him as their leader, city voters clearly preferred another candidate. It is unjust to give control of our police department to a board appointed by a governor who wasn’t elected by the people most impacted by these policies. In March 2021, 57 percent of St. Louis city voters cast a ballot for Mayor Tishaura Jones. She has the confidence of the residents of the City of St. Louis, and she and our locally elected Board of Aldermen should continue to be entrusted with making public safety decisions for our city.
In addition, St. Louis recently hired a new chief of police, Robert Tracy. Chief Tracy is the first “outsider” to be named police chief in the department’s 214-year history, and he comes to St. Louis with 30 years of law enforcement experience. He’s been on the job for about three weeks. We need to give him time to work with the department and work with Mayor Jones to chart a new course for the police department– without the interference of the state.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. As an anti-poverty organization, Empower Missouri holds a strong belief that crime is often a symptom of poverty.
Some people break the law in a desperate attempt to provide for their families. Others live in communities, both urban and rural, where there is an abiding sense of hopelessness. The disinvestment and poverty in these communities is often overwhelming. 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.
Major Jones has demonstrated time and time again that she cares deeply about decreasing poverty across the City, and in the first two years of her administration, she has committed significant time and resources to this cause. Last year, she committed to rehousing 800 persons and building 500 new units of affordable housing by the end of this year as part of a federal housing initiative. She’s committed to put $5 million towards expanding Cure Violence and other community violence intervention programs. She has launched “Social Workers for St. Louis,” an innovative new program aimed at hiring social workers and public health professionals to intervene in nonviolent situations such as mental-health crises as an alternative to the criminal justice system. Her administration is actively investing in youth programming and job training. The city has also invested millions of federal funds to provide relief to families who were hit the hardest by the pandemic, with a focus on helping families stay housed.
The people of St. Louis are in good hands with Mayor Jones and our Board of Aldermen. They are choosing to focus simultaneously on both public safety and decreasing poverty. Decreases in poverty will mean decreases in crime. Decreases in homelessness will mean decreases in crime. Increases in mental health services and addiction treatment will mean decreases in crime. These efforts need to go hand in hand and be managed by local leaders.
Several bills on this issue were heard on Thursday, February 7th in the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee. We need your help to let the committee know that we support local control of the police. Use this form to contact the committee members and urge them to vote NO today!