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A surge in homicides in Missouri this year and widespread protests this summer 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, incumbent Gov. Mike Parson, Raleigh Ritter, term-limited Rep. Jim Neely and Saundra McDowell will be the four Republican candidates on the primary ballot seeking their party's nomination to be the gubernatorial candidate in November. The candidates' order on the ballot will be the same, except for Parson being between Ritter and Neely.

Parson and the other candidates the News Tribune spoke with last week talked about policing and violent crime before the governor 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, he 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.

Ritter — a Seneca businessman — said it's possible to support police but also "weed out those bad apples" on the force. "We've just got to make sure that the cops that don't follow the rules aren't there," he said.

He said there should be zero tolerance for racism, but there should also be conversations with communities that are experiencing problems to find out whether or where perceptions match realities, and there are other problems that can be fixed.

"There's a great way of dealing with the problems of crime, and that is the economy," Ritter said — putting more money in people's pockets, making sure them have good jobs and better lives, and that will mean less temptation to turn to things that lead to violent crime.

Parson — a former sheriff and lieutenant governor as well as a cattle rancher from Bolivar — said while "there's always a discussion to be had about law enforcement doing better," he did not support reducing police forces.

He said there needs to be more officers on the ground to address violent crime, and relationships have to continue to be built with prosecutors.

Speaking specifically of St. Louis, he said if officers have to be hired from outside the city, that's fine.

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One of the points of the special session he called is to eliminate the residency requirement for St. Louis law enforcement, "so long as the officer lives within an hour of the city." The proposal would also prevent public safety employees for the city of St. Louis from being required to be a resident of the city.

If prosecutors won't target violent criminals, "then we need to find other ways to get prosecution," Parson said.

Neely — a physician from Cameron and also a Missouri House member — questioned whether prosecuting attorneys and other elected city officials are doing their jobs. He said law enforcement will solve the problem of crime, if backed up by prosecutors, and law enforcement officers feel like someone's out to get them, that no one has their back.

Neely said crime is the result of a lack of education, leadership and direction — "maybe it's bad parenting." He said he would go directly to areas where there are crime problems and have conversations with all the parties involved.

McDowell — who has a career as a lawyer in private and public practice and has been a candidate for state auditor — called gang violence in Missouri "domestic terrorism" and said it must be addressed, though she would not go into detail on how. She did say she would work with mayors and would not restrict gun rights — as gun owners help protect people and communities. She added gun ownership is not just for hunting but is also to protect against rioters and the government.

On policing, McDowell said law enforcement first needs to be supported and given all the tools they need. She said she's fine with peaceful protests, but destruction of property, assault and threat to homeowners on their land need to be guarded against.

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