Surrounded by law enforcement leaders from across the state, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Wednesday that he is convening a special session of state lawmakers to address violent crime in the state.
The special session is set to begin July 27.
Meanwhile, two Missouri House of Representatives employees have tested positive for COVID-19, and House members and staff are being encouraged to take precautions.
Parson, a former county sheriff, stood in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday afternoon in front of about a dozen law enforcement leaders — including Missouri Department of Public Safety Director Sandra Karsten,;Missouri Highway Patrol Col. Eric Olson; and the sheriffs of Cole, Callaway and Osage counties — as he stressed that violent crime is not just a problem of St. Louis or Kansas City.
While Parson specifically cited significant increases in violent crime this year in Missouri's two largest cities — a 35 percent increase in homicides in Kansas City compared to last year, and a more than 31 percent increase in St. Louis — his official proclamation cites that Missouri "is on track to have its deadliest year on record, having already experienced more homicides in the first half of 2020 than the entire year of 2019."
The proclamation also describes "this unprecedented wave of violent crime" as "an immediate threat to the health and safety of many Missourians," calling for immediate legislative action to "further equip and enhance our criminal justice system to fight violent crime in Missouri and protect our citizens and residents."
Parson said law enforcement officers have been pushed to their limits, having to respond to the combination of protests, violence that in some cases followed, and day-to-day crime in recent weeks.
"If there was ever a time to stand up for law enforcement, now is the time," he said.
Widespread protests calling for reform and accountability of law enforcement followed the filmed May 25 death in Minneapolis 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 killings of Black men, women and children 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.
Democratic lawmakers in the Missouri House and Senate have called on Parson to take action on police reform since Floyd's death, and state Sen. Brian Williams, D-St. Louis, last week called for a special session on the issue.
Parson said Wednesday that the issues raised by recent protests can be addressed in regular legislative session, when there's more time and the ability to have committee hearings on them.
He said the special session will be "narrowly focused on violent crime."
There's no immediate indication of how long the special session is expected to last — the proclamation only states it will begin at noon July 27.
Parson is calling for lawmakers to address six concerns by amending or adding new sections to five areas of state law.
As outlined in a news release from his office, Parson is calling on lawmakers to:
Eliminate the residency requirement for St. Louis law enforcement "so long as the officer lives within an hour of the city. This proposal would also prohibit requiring any public safety employee for the city of St. Louis to be a resident of the city."
Require courts to "determine if a juvenile should be certified for trial as an adult for the offense of unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action."
Allow certain statements by witnesses to be admissible in court that would otherwise not be allowed under current law.
Create a "Pretrial Witness Protection Fund."
Modify the offense of endangering the welfare of a child "for a person who encourages a child to engage in any weapons offense."
Increase the penalty for a person who knowingly sells or delivers a firearm to a child without the consent of the child's parent or guardian.
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler said after the governor's announcement that something has to be done about the increase in crime across the state, adding: "This is not something that we can wait (on) till the next legislative session."
"Unfortunately, Cole County, our crime is going up, but not near as much as the surrounding area, so it's time to do something," and the governor's proposals will help, Wheeler said.
Osage County Sheriff Mike Bonham said he hopes the legislation will increase penalties for violent crime. As Parson did, Bonham decried the deaths of innocent children on the streets.
Bonham also hopes root causes of crime can be addressed in the future.
"We don't have the violent crime in our county as much as others, but we're all in this together; we're all Missourians," he added.
COVID-19 among House employees
During Parson's announcement, an email to Missouri House members and staff showed COVID-19 has once again directly touched the State Capitol.
The email from Chief Clerk of the House Dana Miller notified House members and staff that two House employees have tested positive for the disease.
"These employees are currently self-quarantining at home and are not working in the building; however, there is a possibility that direct or indirect exposure to others may have occurred before the employees were tested," according to the email.
Those who came in direct contact with the two employees have been contacted, and those employees are also quarantining at home.
The email advised people currently working in the Capitol to continue practicing social distancing and wear a face mask in public areas or when interacting with people in the building.
All House members and staff who think they may have been exposed were encouraged to be tested: "You may do so by contacting your primary care physician for instructions, or contact Anthem Member Services directly at 844-516-0248. State employees also have access to the Strive for Wellness Health Center in the Truman State Office Building. To schedule an appointment, employees may call 573-526-3175," according to Miller's email.
Parson said after announcing the special session that he was fine with a proposal made Tuesday by Missouri Senate Democratic leader Sen. John Rizzo, of Independence, that anyone working within the Capitol in conjunction with a special session be provided COVID-19 testing by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he had met with staff Wednesday to begin discussing safety procedures and processes for special session. He said communication among the caucus would happen Thursday.
Schatz specifically said testing is being looked at, as well as possibly continuing temperature scans that were given to people entering the Capitol in the spring — and social distancing.
A House lawmaker tested positive for COVID-19 this past spring, and the pandemic effectively shut down much of this year's regular session, though lawmakers later convened to pass budgets and some other legislation.
This article was updated at 5:35 p.m. July 15, 2020, with additional details.