Missouri voters will get the chance to give St. Louis control of the police force for the first time since the Civil War.
St. Louis and Kansas City are the only cities in the country who do not currently control their own police force. Both cities are overseen by a state commission picked by Missouri’s governor.
St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay said the measure will give greater power to citizens to scrutinize the police force. Under state law, the police force is controlled by a governor-appointed board which has the ultimate say over the department’s operation. If they had local control, the police chief would have to answer directly to the city.
Over the decades, there have been numerous attempts to establish a bill that permits local control. This is the first time it will appear on the ballot.
The St. Louis police force was first stripped of local control after the Civil War when the then-governor charged the police force for being too sympathetic toward freed slaves. Rep. Jamilah Nasheed D-St. Louis City said the governor put a confederate commissioner in control of the police force as a way to advance his own agenda and rid them of Constitutional protection.
“It’s an antiquated system that was built on corruption and hatred, and so I think it is about time to just do away with that system, because the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri no longer cultivate that mentality,” Nasheed said.
Supporters argue that giving the city local control will make police officers more accountable. They also argue that the police force will be more responsive to citizens, which will help stifle the high crime levels running rampant in the city.
Supporters also argue that St. Louis paying for public safety but not controlling it is a modern day “taxation without representation.”
In past years local control faced resistance from St. Louis police whose advocation expressed concern about political interference in the department and with pension plans. The ballot issue is a compromise with the Police Officers Association, A Safer Missouri and Slay.
One provision addressed was the protection from political meddling. The ballot language specifically prohibits retaliation against any police officers by the government. Another provision addresses the protection of their pensions and their health care benefits.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri says that the language on the ballot will limit citizen input and deny them of a citizen review board.
“This particular ballot issue has a language in it which we believe hampers citizen input and transparency of police records,” said John Chasnoff, Program Director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “We don’t think we should have to give up these things to achieve local control.
Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association said that this issue will not deny citizens the right to a civilian review board.
“The only thing in there is that the employers are responsible for disciplining employees, which is true of every other workplace in every other business in this country,” Roorda said.
Slay said that this proposition will improve the police force in St. Louis.
“We’re looking for accountability, we’re looking for efficiency, we’re looking to save money and we’re also looking to make a better department that is going to help reduce crime in our city as well,” Slay said. “We have a lot of talented police officers, a great force and an outstanding chief and I think that this system will help make it work even better for the people.”
Ultimately, St. Louis is looking to have its own police department just like every other city in the country, Slay said.
“We’re not asking for anything that is unusual or different than what virtually every other city in the country has, and that’s its own police department,” Slay said. “When you look at it that way, it makes a lot of sense.”