Testimony in Opposition to Removing Local Control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

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

First and foremost, there is simply no logical explanation for pursuing this type of legislation at this time. 

St. Louis saw a 21% drop of homicides, more than 40 cases, in 2023 from 2022. St. Louis police reported 158 killings in 2023, marking its fewest in a decade. The same was true for other types of reported crime: Shootings were down 24% from 772 in 2022 to 552; felony thefts were down 39%; auto thefts were down 19%; and shootings involving juveniles were down 47%. And, contrary to what many in this legislative body have feared, 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. In addition, violent crime is down in the City. 

On the contrary, Kansas City, whose police force is managed by the state, saw a 7% increase in homicides last year, in defiance of national trends. 

Missouri voters overwhelmingly voted to return local control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to the City of St. Louis only ten years ago. 

Proposition A passed in 2012 with a whopping 64 percent of a statewide vote. Missouri voters believe in local control of police. You will hear others testify today that voters made that choice because St. Louis made certain promises about outcomes if they were to regain local control. However, I pulled the ballot language from 2012, and this is not reflected in the ballot language. Missouri voters support local control unreservedly.  This legislation not only undermines the will of the people, it forgoes putting the issue back in front of voters to hear their voice. This is remarkably undemocratic. 

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. 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. I have been unable to find any reporting or data that suggests that any other city in the country has their police department controlled by the state. 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. 

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, our Board of Aldermen, and our Chief of Police, who has made remarkable strides in decreasing crime over the last three years. 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. 

As a final note, I feel confident that the sponsors of these bills will be speaking today about the need to place the St. Louis Police Department under local control because St. Louis City has a bad reputation for crime that impacts the rest of the state. I don’t disagree that we have a bad reputation. However, I think that 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. 

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.

This testimony was submitted on February 8th, 2024, to the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee. You can follow it’s progress using the Bill Tracker below.

Leave a Reply