St. Louis police could return to state control. Kansas City’s mayor is sounding the alarm
In the final week of the legislative session, Missouri lawmakers in the Senate are poised to debate a bill that would return control of the police department in St. Louis to the state.
State control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was the reality for 152 years — until 2013. The year prior, Missouri voters passed a statewide proposition that enacted local control. Now, legislators in Jefferson City could undo that statutory change.
The Missouri House passed the measure in March. Bill sponsor Rep. Brad Christ, R-St. Louis County, said the intent is to stabilize the police department.
“This bill is an attempt to restore order in a city, in a region, that has been decimated by crime,” Christ said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is sounding the alarm.
“I think the reason that state takeover is so potentially troubling for the St. Louis Police Department is because every day I deal with issues large and small relating to the fact that decisions have to be made in Jefferson City,” Lucas explained on St. Louis on the Air.
The police department in Kansas City is the only municipality in Missouri that’s controlled by the state. The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners is composed of Lucas and four members who are appointed by the governor.
The police department’s official webpage explains that state control was needed in response to political boss Tom Pendergast’s corruption, famously called the “Pendergast Political Machine.” However, the roots of state control in Kansas City — and St. Louis — date back to the Civil War era and attempts to limit the influence of Black voters.
Lucas said state control is problematic for a number of reasons. One of them is that the state caps the amount of money it can pay Police Chief Stacey Graves. Graves became Kansas City’s first female police chief last year.
“[She’s] paid tens of thousands of dollars a year less than your police chief in St. Louis, than police chiefs in almost every major city in America,” he said. “We have to go to Jefferson City to do something as simple as give our officers pay raises. If you are pro police, and if you back the blue, why would you support a system that actually limits our ability to compensate them fairly for the work that they do?”
However, police generally support state control. It’s made somewhat odd bedfellows in St. Louis where both the St. Louis Police Officers Association that primarily represents white officers and the Ethical Society of Police that mostly represents Black officers support the measure. Union representatives say that state control would better protect police officers and help with recruitment, retention and morale.
Kansas City is on track to have its most violent year in terms of homicides, and Lucas says state control plays a role.
“I believe that the state control system keeps us away from finding, in some situations, the most innovative solutions,” he said.
Instead of spending time to come up with tactics that would prevent crime, Lucas said time is spent on fighting between the state and the city, particularly when an influx of American Rescue Plan Act dollars could go a long way.
“The way it is now, the City of Kansas City itself has to apply for any type of grant, we then perhaps transfer it to the Board of Police Commissioners. But if they don't want it, if they don't agree with the purpose, then we're finding ourselves sending money back to the federal government,” Lucas said.
Over the past few years, the homicide rate is up in Kansas City and St. Louis. But to the extent that there’s a connection between local control and an increase in homicides, University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld says the data doesn’t support that local control is the cause.
Robert Tracy took command of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in January. He’s urged legislators to give him time to assess and make changes. Whether that’s a convincing argument in the waning days of the legislative session is yet to be seen.
Lucas said giving Tracy a chance makes a lot of sense.
“If state takeovers of police departments worked, then why hasn't every state done it?” Lucas asked. “There's a very simple reason: because it's not a modern tool for how we make things better.”
Sarah Kellogg contributed to this story.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.