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St. Louis police local control gets mixed reviews on 5th anniversary

On Aug. 31, 2013, then-Mayor Francis Slay signed an executive order returning control of the St. Louis police department back to the city.
FIle photo | Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio
On Aug. 31, 2013, then-Mayor Francis Slay signed an executive order returning control of the St. Louis police department back to the city.

Five years ago, control of the St. Louis police department returned to the city.

For more than 150 years, a state-appointed board had overseen the department, even though city residents paid for the services.

Opponents and supporters of the transition have different takes on how the last five years have gone.

Supporters tried to pass local-control legislation in Jefferson City several times before finally turning to a statewide vote in 2012. On Aug. 31, 2013, following voter approval, then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed an executive order giving control of the department back to the city.

Although the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression opposed the ballot measure because of the way it was worded, members had long supported the concept and were the first to find legislators to get the bills passed.

“We felt like the police department was particularly unresponsive to the community here, because it was ultimately accountable to the governor and to the state legislature,” said John Chasnoff, CAPCR’s co-chair. While the members of the police board were St. Louis residents, he added, there was no mechanism for residents to comment on how the police department was run.

With local control, Chasnoff said, department leaders, including police chief John Hayden, regularly appear in front of the Board of Aldermen’s public-safety committee.

“That’s a healthy development from local control,” he said. “But then, does that power extend to the ability to mandate certain policies for the police department around use of force, for example, or some other issue? Those types of things are still being debated and sorted out.”

But State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis — who introduced several of the bills pushing for local control — was less impressed with the aldermanic oversight.

“I don’t think that the aldermen have really stepped up to the plate and evaluated the police department in a way that they should have, to see if they are effectively controlling and operating a system that so many residents look to for safety,” she said.

This past June, aldermen approved a bill requiring the city’s public-safety director to present a yearly public-safety plan. The first report is due in October 2019.

The potential for the department to be more politicized under local control led the St. Louis Police Officers Association to oppose the transition. Its business manager, Jeff Roorda, said he has seen that happen occasionally.

“We object less to what the Board of Aldermen does as a legislative body than individual meddlesome elected officials do,” Roorda said.

Local control has been good to Roorda’s officers. He’s been able to negotiate several contracts that have resulted in raises. But joining the city also means trying to negotiate the bureaucracy.

“The city has a sprawling bureaucracy, and Christopher Columbus would have problems navigating it,” he said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.