Date: January 16th, 2024

To: Senator Travis Fitzwater, Chair, and Members, Senate Transportation, Infrastructure & Public Safety

From: Mallory Rusch, Executive Director at Empower Missouri

Re: Our opposition to SB 808

On behalf of the staff, board, and statewide Criminal Justice Coalition convened by Empower Missouri, I am here today to oppose SB 808. I am also a lifelong resident of and long-time homeowner in the City of St. Louis. 

The crux of the issue at hand is that there is no conclusive evidence that higher law enforcement staffing levels lower crime. 

Missourians are united in a desire for lower crime rates and safer communities. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to reduce crime. Many studies have attempted to link police staffing levels to reductions in crime, with very mixed results. A recent meta-analysis by criminologist Aaron Chalfin shows that historically, homicides fell after more officers were hired about 54 percent of the time. However, for Southern and Midwestern cities with a large Black population, the homicide rate was not impacted by the hiring of additional officers. 

There is emerging research that there are many ways to reduce crime, including brighter street lighting, cleaning up vacant lots, community-led violence intervention programs, and increased spending on drug treatment programs and mental health services. This is why it is very important for crime reduction to be looked at from a citywide perspective, overseen by city government, so that all of these various pieces can work together to create safer neighborhoods for all of us. 

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. 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. 

Creating a dynamic where a City’s police department could be put under state control based on the number of officers in its employ is a significant overreach for the state, especially considering that there is a national law enforcement staffing crisis.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department currently has 161% the officers per capita as the state average, 173% the officers per capita as the national average, and 163% the officers per capita as similarly sized cities across the country. It is a well-staffed police force. However, there are many reasons why St. Louis may dip below its budgeted number of officers (currently 1,275) and none of them are good reasons for the state to take control of the department. 

According to a survey of nearly 200 police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, DC.-based think tank, officer resignations were up 47% and retirements were up 19% in 2022 compared to 2019. Young people are increasingly uninterested in becoming police officers or unwilling to go through the required training process. 

According to the 2021 International Association of Chiefs of Police Survey on police retention and recruitment:

  • 78% of agencies reported having difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates
  • 65% of agencies reported having too few candidates applying to be law enforcement officers
  • 75% of agencies reported that recruiting was more difficult in 2019 than it was in 2014

This problem is impacting police departments across Missouri, including the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which was short 130 troopers last year. It is particularly unreasonable to enact this type of legislation during a national and state law enforcement shortage, where the factors that may prevent St. Louis from hitting its target number of officers are far wider than anything happening in the City. 

This appears to be an underhanded attempt at returning the St. Louis Police Department to state control without a vote of the people. 

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. This is the case in every Missouri municipality/county but one. Missouri has maintained control of the Kansas City Police Department dating back to the Civil War, and quite frankly, we believe that local control of that department should be returned to Kansas City’s mayor and city council. The only other city that was engaging in this practice was Baltimore, and they just regained local control in a November 2022 vote. (Interestingly, Baltimore has the second highest murder rate in the country, so it doesn’t make a compelling case for state control of the police. Neither does Kansas City, which has the eighth highest murder rate.)

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. 

Finally, the powers of a police department should never supersede the powers of the local government which employs it. 

Democracy is a system of government in which power is vested in the people and exercised by them either directly or through freely elected representatives. The citizens of St. Louis City have elected our Mayor and our Board of Aldermen, and we have entrusted the functions of municipal government to them. One of their biggest responsibilities is community safety, which they oversee through the hiring of a police chief, the setting of a budget, and the determination of major policy related to public safety. 

It is completely backwards, and I would dare say authoritarian, to have a city where the body governing the police department has more power and authority than our duly elected local officials. The police, via our local government, work for us, the voting and tax-paying citizens of the City of St. Louis. This is a basic tenant of our system of government, and we will fight hard to protect it. 

A few relevant data reminders: 

  1. It is 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. 
  2. I think that it is also important to mention that the crime rate has not changed significantly since St. Louis took back local control. When you look at index crime data for the years immediately preceding and following the state regaining control, there is little indication that any major change in power happened. 
  1. As previously mentioned, but worth repeating, even under state control, Kansas City has 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. 
  2. St. Louis is not defunding the police. The FY24 police spending package is up 6.6% from FY23, including raises for officers and a $2M increase to its capital equipment allocation to update and expand its vehicle fleet.

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