A surge in homicides in Missouri and widespread protests against police brutality have highlighted two things political candidates and others are once again speaking about — a need to address violent crime in the state, but also calls to improve the quality of police services.
On Aug. 4, five Democratic candidates are seeking their party's nomination to be the gubernatorial candidate in November: State Auditor Nicole Galloway, of Columbia; Jimmie Matthews, of St. Louis; Antoin Johnson, of St. Louis; Eric Morrison, of Kansas City; and Robin John Daniel Van Quaethem, of St. Louis — listed there in the order they will be on the ballot.
Van Quaethem did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
The candidates the News Tribune spoke with last week talked about policing and violent crime before Republican Gov. Mike Parson called a special legislative session to begin July 27 to address violent crime.
Parson's proclamation calling for the session stated Missouri "is on track to have its deadliest year on record" in terms of homicides. In his announcement speech, Parson cited a 35 percent increase in homicides in Kansas City this year compared to last and a more than 31 percent increase in St. Louis.
Parson asked state lawmakers to focus on violent crime alone in the special session — through a six-point agenda involving five sections of law — and to not include calls for police reform, which he said would be better suited for a regular legislative session.
Widespread protests calling for reform and accountability of law enforcement followed the filmed May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for several minutes. That officer was charged with murder.
Floyd's death was the latest in a series of high-profile deaths of Black people by police across the country in recent years — including the Missouri death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014, which also prompted protests and riots.
Galloway said she supports law enforcement officers, and while Floyd's death "opened up painful wounds that have existed for a long time," she said, "I do not believe we should defund the police."
Galloway said while there is a "need to recognize that racism is real and there are systemic inequalities that exist within institutions," those inequalities can be addressed in the long term by investments in areas such as health care and economic empowerment.
She said she supports criminal justice system reform, and her agenda on the subject includes banning chokeholds and reviewing police training — but there's more in play than that.
On violent crime, Galloway said part of why Missouri has three of the nation's most dangerous cities — St. Louis, Springfield and Kansas City — is the wide acceptability of firearms, and she supports "common sense" gun safety reforms, such as background checks to make sure criminals don't have access to firearms. She said such measures are supported on local levels and by law enforcement.
Matthews, a St. Louis pastor, said young people and others committing crimes need more opportunity, and as governor, it would be important to him to create entrepreneurship, help people start businesses or go to school, and find housing for low-income people — "so we have something to live for."
He said some problems with policing as it is are that police don't live in the neighborhoods they work in. He said officers should be hired from within neighborhoods — and community ride-along programs could also help — so police are not just outsiders coming in.
"We have to have respect for each other," Matthews said, adding police should face consequences for their actions. He said police should not be militarized with heavy equipment or attitudes that are not sensitive to life.
Johnson, a St. Louis activist, said police officers should not be asked to have to deal with mental health issues, at least not on their own.
"They should go there with someone like a social worker," she said.
She said mental health, unemployment — including because of having a felony record — and homelessness contribute to crime, and a limit of three years of assistance per person on those issues could help people in need: "And they could feel like a human being again."
Johnson also said use of chokeholds by police should be banned.
Morrison said police departments need a greater level of accountability, and that must begin with identifying bad apple officers, removing them from the force, and preventing them from getting a second chance of being hired by another city or county police department elsewhere — at least without their record following them and being identified as a bad actor.
He said there's been a lot of dialogue about police training, "but I don't think training an officer has really anything to do with his actions towards people. When they are taking the role as a public servant to serve and protect, when brutality comes out of that, that's not a part of the training."
On crime, Morrison said violent crimes are more likely to be committed in places with high wealth disparities, and it's necessary to bring in more medical, employment and education resources.