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Senate sends bill changing Missouri's deadly force law to the House

Demonstrators sketched a chalk outline of a body on the pavement of the Ferguson Police Station on October 13.
Rachel Lippman | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 5:50 p.m. April 29 - The Senate gave final approval to its deadly force bill Wednesday.

The bill raises the standard to justify the use of deadly force. The measure passed with a 32-2 bipartisan vote and now heads to the House.

Sens. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, were the only "no" votes. Schaaf said earlier that he thought the wording would hinder police.

Nasheed voted against the bill because she said she doesn’t think it changes the language enough.

“Today, I’m disheartened because we’re still back to square one. At the end of the day I don’t think that this is going to solve the problems that we heard on the grounds during the unrest in August, September, October, November and December and even January,” she said. “This is a piece of legislation that should probably go in the trash can because it’s not doing anything to change the dynamics when it comes to deadly force.”

On Tuesday, Nasheed proposed an amendment to change the standard from reasonable belief to probable cause, but that was voted down. The change would have made the ground for use of deadly force even stricter.

The measure is part of an effort to address Ferguson-related concerns. Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said Wednesday the bill is a good first step, but the legislature needs to do more.

“This is only one step. One. It may take a hundred action items to get this legislature to where it needs to be,” she said. “Anytime there is an outbreak or what people call a riot, they always refer to Ferguson as the worst case scenario. It’s the bottom; it’s the pits; it’s the embarrassment of the nation. And if Ferguson is the embarrassment of the nation then what does that make Missouri?”

The bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Dixon of Springfield. While the bill changed from his original version, he agreed with Chappelle-Nadal about the benefit the changes the bill makes to the state’s statutes.

“Now is the time to bring Missouri statutes and U.S. constitutional case law together and now is the time to bring the people of Missouri together– time to bring the people together for healing,” he said.

Less than three weeks remain for the House to pass the bill and the legislature to send it to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.

Original article

The Missouri Senate is moving on a bill that would limit the use of deadly force by police.

The measure, approved by a voice vote Tuesday, changes the state's language to allow deadly force only when an officer "reasonably believes" the suspect has committed or will attempt to commit a felony that threatens or involves "serious physical injury" and "may otherwise endanger life or inflict serious physical injury to the officer or others unless arrested without delay."

Currently, state law permits the use of deadly force if the officer believes the suspect has committed or will attempt to commit a felony, is escaping with a deadly weapon and poses a serious danger to others. That language could give reason for police to shoot someone over even minor offenses, such as fraud or theft.

The bill, Senate Bill 199, would bring Missouri in line with the Supreme Court's 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner. In that case, the court said

Apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement. To determine whether such a seizure is reasonable, the extent of the intrusion on the suspect's rights under that Amendment must be balanced against the governmental interests in effective law enforcement. This balancing process demonstrates that, notwithstanding probable cause to seize a suspect, an officer may not always do so by killing him. The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.

Missouri's decades old law contributed to confusion over the grand jury decision to not indict former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown last year. The law does not include the more stringent language the Senate's bill proposes and is part of a legislative response to Brown's shooting.

Democratic Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal from University City and Jamilah Nasheed from St. Louis as well as Shalonn "Kiki" Curls of Kansas City spoke in favor of the bill. Nasheed, though, didn't think the bill went far enough and proposed an amendment that would change the bill's language to include "probable cause" instead of "reasonable belief."

"If we continue to have reasonable belief in the state statute, I don't think that law enforcement would think twice about taking their guns and using excessive force to shoot and kill an individual," she said.

Her amendment was voted down.

Not all senators agreed with the bill. Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said he was worried it would hinder law enforcement from making some arrests.

"What we're doing is locking it down and absolutely creating a situation where – and the Supreme Court has already done it – where the perpetrator has no reason to stop when the police say stop because they know that they can get away."

The Senate's debate comes one day after Baltimore erupted in chaos over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody earlier this month. Nasheed said during the debate that if Missouri doesn't bring its laws in line with the Supreme Court's decision, it could have a serious problem on its hands.

"You can find case after case after case where young white boys, they're physically fighting law enforcement officers, and they (the police) apprehend them. They don't kill them. They talk them down," Nasheed said. "But why is it that when you have an encounter with young black males that your first order of business is to use deadly force?

"That's a major problem here in America and that’s why you see what we're seeing in Baltimore. That's why you see what we saw in Ferguson."

Curls said the bill is not meant to cast doubt or be critical of law enforcement when it comes to deadly force.

"What we do want in those cases in those times, whether they happen to be fewer or further between, that there is at least some additional thought as to the danger that person (the suspect) may ultimately pose either to the officer or to the rest of society," she said. "That's what this is about."

The bill will need one more Senate vote before it moves to the House. The legislature has only three weeks remaining in this year's session, so if the bill will have time to make it to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk is undetermined. 

Follow Ray Howze on Twitter: @RayHowze