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State takeover of St. Louis police, prosecutor’s office blocked by Senate Democrats

by Rebecca Rivas | May 4, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Missouri Senate Democrats blocked a vote Tuesday night on a wide-ranging bill that would put St. Louis city's police department and part of the city's prosecutor's office under state control.

After nine hours of a Democrat-led filibuster, Republicans set the bill aside for the night. The legislative session ends at 6 p.m. May 12.

Republicans argued St. Louis leaders couldn't decrease crime on their own, while Democrats said the legislation was purely a political "vendetta" against the city's progressive mayor and prosecutor.

And the bill, they said, ignores a major factor in the city's crime problem -- loose gun laws.

"This is a political attack on the city of St. Louis," said Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis. "It's not a rational argument. No one is proposing a real solution to address guns."

The bill would give the governor the ability to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases and appoint a special prosecutor -- or the attorney general -- to take over those cases for five years.

The bill would also put the city's police department back under control of a state board, with Republican Gov. Mike Parson appointing four commissioners to serve alongside the president of the St. Louis board of aldermen.

The police board would assume control of the department Aug. 28.

"You can pass all the gun control that your heart desires," said Sen. Nick Schroer, a Republican from St. Charles County. "But if you don't have the police to enforce those laws, and you don't have a prosecutor to go after the criminals, what are you doing?"

Republican legislators made it clear in January that challenging the authority of St. Louis' elected prosecutor Kimberly Gardner -- a progressive Black Democrat -- was a top priority this year.

While control over St. Louis' police and prosecutor were the most controversial parts of the bill, the legislation would also make it easier to charge people with the crime of rioting, expand the areas where school safety officers can carry firearms and extend prison sentences.

It would also require fingerprinting as part of the background checks for all employees at marijuana-related businesses.

The original bill had a provision to prevent children from carrying firearms in public without adult supervision. It was meant to reinstate language that the Second Amendment Preservation Act took out of Missouri law when it was passed in 2021.

But that was stripped from the bill by Republicans concerned about infringing on the Second Amendment.

"This is about protecting kids," Roberts said. "It's just egregious to me, the idea that guns over lives seems to be the mantra of this body."

Special prosecutor for violent crime cases

Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, said the goal of his special prosecutor bill was to decrease crime in the state.

However, the House bill originally targeted only Gardner, who won her re-election in November 2020 with 74 percent of the vote.

The bill was amended to apply to any elected prosecutors across the state, out of concern that singling out one prosecutor would be unconstitutional.

The governor could appoint a special prosecutor for five years if the number of homicide cases in any prosecuting attorney's jurisdiction in the 12 months immediately preceding exceeds 35 cases per every 100,000 people.

The governor would also have to determine that "a threat to public safety and health exists" based on reviewing certain crime statistics.

The special prosecutor would have "exclusive jurisdiction" to prosecute certain offenses -- including murders, assaults, robberies, hijacking and other violent offenses -- and be given a budget to hire up to 15 assistant prosecuting attorneys and 15 staffers.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Gardner's office testified against the bill in committee.

Gardner's representative, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Hinkley, told legislators during a Jan. 30 committee hearing that the bill wrongly assumes the prosecutor's office has a backlog of violent crime cases.

"We've kept violent crimes at the top," Hinkley said, even through the pandemic. "The violent crimes will never and were not ever delayed in review and issuance."

The original bill included a line that explicitly states the special prosecutor "shall not be the attorney general."

But that was stripped from the version the Senate debated Tuesday and replaced with the line stating the governor may appoint the attorney general or any elected prosecuting or circuit attorney as a special prosecutor.

During special sessions in 2020, Republicans similarly made two failed attempts to hand over an unprecedented amount of Gardner's authority to then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Schmitt would have been allowed to take over homicide cases if Gardner's office had not filed charges within 90 days of the incidents or upon request from the "chief law enforcement officer."

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys fought vehemently against the provision in 2020, saying that Missourians "have never wanted statewide politicians to meddle in local affairs."

State control of St. Louis police

On Tuesday, the Senate tacked on more hot-button language to the underlying bill to put St. Louis' police department back under state control -- a policy originally born out of pro-slavery leaders' attempt to maintain control 150 years ago.

Kansas City is the only major city in the country where the city's elected leaders don't control the local police department -- a state-appointed police board does.

Up until 2013, St. Louis was in the same boat.

However, the city gained local control of its police department after a 2012 statewide referendum.

The provision originally sponsored by Schroer would reverse that.

It also states the mayor or any city officer would be penalized $1,000 for "each and every offense to hinder the board," as well as be "forever be disqualified from holding or exercising any office of the city."

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, pushed back saying the city had high crime under the state control prior to 2012.

"You want to try to say that we need to take control of the police department, why?" May said. "You don't have a good track record. ... It's amazing to me how they just woke up this year and decided to care about the lives of people in St. Louis city."

Former Public Safety Director Dan Isom, who was the city's police chief in 2012 when the referendum was passed, previously testified to the Senate that the city has made strides to decrease violent crime despite state lawmakers' continued push to loosen gun restrictions since 2007.

"Missouri has some of the loosest gun laws in the country," Isom said.

Isom said when the Missouri legislature adopted permitless concealed carry in 2016, law enforcement officials warned about the impact but were ignored.

From 2016-20, Isom said firearm homicides increased in the city by 50 percent – from 177 to 266.

However, from 2020-21, he said the city's homicide rate fell by more than 25 percent, and the violent crime rate fell 23 percent over the same time period.

"The return to local control has not resulted in an increase in violent crime," Isom said. "An increase in weapons has increased the violence on our streets."

Isom also said taking away the authority of local elected officials to guide policing in St. Louis would also disconnect police officers from the communities they serve.

"When a local mayor is in charge of their police force, they can serve as a translator between community needs and policing imperatives," Isom said. "Removing this local connection will engender feelings of mistrust between officers and community, ultimately making officers less safe."

The Missouri Independent, www., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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