Police in St. Louis, Missouri, are working to wrest control of their department from the city’s progressive mayor and put it in the hands of the Republican governor.
Law enforcement unions argue that local control has “put politics in policing” and that state oversight would help address an increase in homicides and a drop in police morale and staffing levels. They have rallied around Senate Bill 78, which would reinstate a Civil War-era system of state control overturned by Missouri voters in 2012 — and make St. Louis one of the only major cities in the country without authority over its own police force. The attempt by the Missouri Legislature to strip power away from city officials is a “slap in the face” to constituents in St. Louis, Mayor Tishaura Jones said.
The move comes just two years after St. Louis first elected Jones and progressives won a majority on the city’s Board of Aldermen. While police department operations “are definitely not perfect,” Jones told The Intercept, the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Local officials should have control over how law enforcement resources are deployed, she said.
The bill targeting elected leaders in St. Louis is one of several recent efforts across the country to undercut the authority of local progressive officials on policing and prosecution matters. Jones and her allies say the bill is an example of police turning their political efforts toward legislation as their preferred candidates have continued to lose at the ballot box.
There is a “common thread of the cities that I am aware of where this is happening,” Jones said. “Where there has been a concerted attempt to strip power away from local leadership, the mayors are Black.” She pointed to Kansas City, Missouri, where residents have been fighting to regain control of the police department from the state, and Jackson, Mississippi, a majority-Black city that could see the creation of a separate court system and police force appointed by white state officials if Republican lawmakers get their way.
Another recent Missouri House bill would allow the governor to strip elected prosecutors of jurisdiction over certain violent crimes. A previous version of the bill singled out the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office, where prosecutor Kim Gardner has drawn the ire of Republican officials for her pledges to hold police accountable, stop detaining nonviolent offenders, and end cash bail. Concerns over the constitutionality of targeting a specific office eventually led state officials to expand the scope of the bill.
Jones characterized the fight over control of the St. Louis Police Department as performative politics. “Either we’re going to learn to get along and make sure that we’re protecting the people that we are all duly elected to serve, or we’re going to keep having these petty fights,” she said.
Critics of the proposed change in St. Louis say it’s not a genuine effort to stop violent crime but a power play against officials who haven’t shown the same allegiance to police as their predecessors. Black lawmakers in the state Legislature have criticized the bill as an effort to strip authority from democratically elected Black officials “under the guise of ‘public safety.’” The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the current structure, Jones has the power to hire and fire police chiefs. Should the bill pass, that power would be given to a board appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson. The bill would also require the board to staff the police department with at least 1,142 members and increase police salaries by $4,000 starting next summer. (The department currently has around 1,000 sworn officers and 400 civilian employees.)
Jones said she was hopeful that Parson would see the city’s case and stop the bill should it pass. “Our governor is a former sheriff,” she said. “I know that he appreciates local control of law enforcement.”
State Sen. Nick Schroer, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
The St. Louis Police Department was previously overseen by the state in an arrangement dating back to the Civil War, when Missouri’s then-governor enacted state control of local police as he prepared to secede and join the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 2012 that Missouri voters secured local control of the St. Louis Police Department in a statewide referendum. Kansas City’s police department, meanwhile, has remained under state authority. That hasn’t insulated Kansas City from experiencing the same spike in homicides as many other cities across the country in recent years. Nevertheless, St. Louis police and their allies in office have cited a similar spike in St. Louis in calling for a return to state oversight.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association has been vocal in support of the bill, as has the Ethical Society of Police, a union that represents Black cops in St. Louis. The two unions have long disagreed on some political issues, particularly related to police reform. The Ethical Society of Police opposed a move by St. Louis prosecutors to join the officers association in a rebuke of St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who ran on a reform platform and ousted longtime officers association ally Bob McCulloch in 2018.
The Missouri state Legislature first brought the bill targeting St. Louis up for consideration in January. The bill passed out of a state Senate committee earlier this month and is expected to pass out of a House committee in the coming weeks before receiving a full floor vote in both chambers.