ST. LOUIS—Republican state lawmakers and the city of St. Louis appear to be on another collision course in 2024 for more debate over control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
The idea of state control by an oversight board made up of St. Louis residents passed the House in the legislative session which ended in May. It was connected in the Senate with a bill that would let the Governor appoint a special prosecutor for violent crime in St. Louis. In the waning days of the session, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced her resignation in the face of legislative pressure and legal removal proceedings launched by the Attorney General.
The bill then died in the Senate, much to the chagrin of House GOP leadership and vocal Republicans in the Senate, who wanted it to move forward anyway.
Advocates for state control told Spectrum News during last week’s veto session that they intend to press for it again next year. The move will again have support of both city police labor unions, who have complained about staffing in recent years as the department struggled to fill vacancies.
There could be significant headwinds working against the idea, including improved crime statistics and a heavy dose of 2024 politics.
“I think Missouri citizens have a right to feel safe. As a citizen of just St. Louis County, I don’t think people can feel safe going into the city they were once able to. I want stronger leadership. I want those that perpetrate violent crime to be held accountable and we’re going to do that in the House of Representatives,” House Speaker Dean Plocher, the Republican from Des Peres said last week. Plocher plans to run for Lt. Gov. next year.
Senate President Caleb Rowden told reporters in May that lawmakers would need to see some “needle-moving” with the police department under new chief Robert Tracy, for the issue to fall away.
According to city crime statistics, through August there have been fewer homicides year to year (105/133), fewer robberies (475/535) and fewer burglaries (1360/1482). Motor vehicle thefts are up (4,236/4,159), officials have said, largely because of problems with Hyundai and Kia models. The city is suing the automakers to force a recall to address an ignition vulnerability exposed by a social media challenge.
State Sen. Nick Schroer, R-St. Peters has questioned the accuracy of the city’s crime data, as well as the notion of improvement.
“I think this fantasy world that they have painted maybe that’s gotten a little better. Maybe they’ve added some different vibrant colors in the background of this fantasy world they’re living in, in the city of St. Louis,” he said last week.
“I don’t see the Senate ever passing that to be honest with you. The city folk want to control their police and I think that’s right. I think there are certain things that they desperately need help with. They desperately need help with their 9-1-1 system,” said State Rep. Jim Murphy, R- St. Louis County. “There’s a lot of things we can do without taking it back that can kind of solve the day-to-day issues of the St. Louis police, but I don’t know that taking it back over would be something we could even pass if we wanted to,” he said.
On Tuesday, Mayor Tishaura Jones predicted the idea would fail again.
“The biggest question is who's gonna pay for it....we know our rights as a city, as a home rule city. We know that if they try to take control of our police department again that they're going to have to pay for all of the police raises, they’re going to have to pay for all of our equipment,” Jones said.
“This isn't a battle that we're going to take sitting down so again they failed before they'll probably fail again,’ she added.
While other notable candidates for statewide office, including gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and State Sen. Bill Eigel have endorsed state control of the department, State Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, a Plocher rival in the race for Lt. Governor, said she favors local control.
“The more that you give the government you're just feeding it you’re feeding the monster right? And I think we need a smaller government so I’m never ok with making government bigger,” she said last week, also voicing support for giving Tracy and new Circuit Attorney Gabe Gore more time.
Gore, appointed by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson as Kim Gardner’s permanent replacement in late May, has taken steps to rebuild the Circuit Attorney’s office, clearing out a backlog of cases in part by acting faster to charge out new ones.
A Gore spokesperson confirmed a St. Louis Post Dispatch analysis that showed the Circuit Attorney’s Office issued twice the number of cases this summer than Gardner’s office during the same time frame last year.
Parson met with Gore Tuesday. Afterward he offered praise.
“We all need St. Louis to do well. We need to make sure they control crime in that city but you've got to have a prosecutor, you gotta have judges you gotta have enforcement to make all that work but all three branches have to,” he said. “I think when you see the circuit attorney, what Gore's doing up there, he's heading in the right direction and we're seeing that in the workload he's doing so I expect some changes up there and I think they'll be good for St. Louis and the region as a whole,” Parson said.
Spectrum News asked Parson if he’d seen enough progress with the police department to say a shift back to state control was unnecessary. The Governor was noncommittal.
“I think that's going to be an ongoing discussion up here, you know we changed that once, now the question is do you change it back so I think there's a lot of discussion to be had on it but I don't know for sure where that's going to head once the legislative session starts,” Parson said.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association and the Ethical Society of Police, the two unions representing St. Louis Metropolitan Police, say they will again support a move to state control.
"Our law enforcement and St. Louis City civilian worker members need competitive pay and also supportive and equitable conditions in order to improve retention and morale, which ultimately benefits the community," ESOP said in a statement Thursday.