Bound by Division: Local Control of the St. Louis Police Department
St. Louis residents pay for the city’s police force, but the state controls it.
While St. Louis’ mayor sits on the Board of Police Commissioners, Missouri’s governor appoints the other four members.
It’s been that way for 150 years, since the outset of the Civil War.
In recent years, the drumbeat to bring local control back to the city has been growing louder.
As part of St. Louis Public Radio’s continuing Bound By Division series, Maria Altman reports the reasons for and against local control have changed since the Civil War, but it’s still an issue that pits the city against the state.
Officials in St. Louis have argued for years that city should get back control of its own police force, but the idea has never been able to overcome resistance in Jefferson City.
At a recent rally for local control Mayor Francis Slay offered these assurances.
“I will promise the governor that if we get local control back to the people of St. Louis we will not, we will not use our department against the Confederacy,” Slay said.
The mayor was joking, but he was referring to the reason the state took control of St. Louis’ police department in the first place.
It was March 1861 and the country was on the brink of war.
Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson was a Confederate sympathizer with a largely like-minded General Assembly.
Missouri History Museum president Bob Archibald says Governor Claiborne wanted control of the Union stronghold of St. Louis and the best way was through its police force.
“He had the legislature pass an act that transferred control of the police board from the city to him, and he immediately appointed five people to that initial police board, all of whom had sympathies with the secessionist movement,” Archibald said.
Jackson would eventually be run out of Missouri and the state remained in the Union, but St. Louis has never regained control of its own police department.
State house member Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat from St. Louis, believes this is the year it will change.
She’s sponsored a local control proposal that passed the Missouri House last week, the furthest such a bill has ever gotten.
Nasheed says she doesn’t think the 150th anniversary had much to do with it.
She says it’s about fairness to the city’s taxpayers who fund the department.
“We pay two-thirds of our budget to public safety and it’s like taxation without representation in the city of St. Louis and it’s unfortunate,” Nasheed said.
In fact, in a referendum put to the city’s voters last November 70 percent agreed the city should control the police department.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association, the union that represents the city’s officers, is not in favor.
Spokesman Ed Clark says they’re concerned there would be too much political influence if the department were under City Hall.
“We’re just saying, I know it was the ‘30s, but the Pendergast era in Kansas City shown what can happen if a strong political party or even one person takes control of a police force, how quickly it can be corrupt,” Clark said.
The union has also questioned whether the city would raid officers’ pensions in tight budget times.
That argument has gained traction with some state lawmakers like Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat from University City.
“This has everything to do with pensions, and taking away the employment terms and benefits from police officers, and if it starts with police officers it will spread to teachers and firefighters,” Chappelle-Nadal said.
The Senate sponsor of local control, Democrat Joe Keaveny of St. Louis, says his measure protects police pensions.
And he says fears of corruption are unfair to St. Louis.
“Every other major city in the country seems to be able to handle it. I don’t know why St. Louis can’t,” Keaveny said.
There’s a chance there will be a filibuster to prevent the measure from moving forward in the Senate this month.
Governor Jay Nixon also has expressed reservations.
Yet even if local control dies in the state Senate or on the governor’s desk, the issue isn’t going away any time soon.
There’s an effort afoot to bypass Jefferson City altogether and to put the question before Missouri’s voters. (The group behind that effort is known as A Safer Missouri.)