A Missouri Senate committee heard several hours of testimony on Monday regarding gun violence throughout the state, with possible solutions including more money for gang intervention and better retention of police officers.
Witnesses at the hearing were invited by one of the seven senators on the newly formed Interim Committee on Public Safety. They included police, prosecutors and research analysts.
Rolla Police Chief Sean Fagan, president of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, outlined a severe retention and hiring problem for police officers across the state.
“There’s not a police department in the state of Missouri right now that’s not shorthanded and are easily being able to hire police officers,” said Fagan, who worked in the Florissant Police Department for more than three decades before he moved to Rolla. “We have had this problem since the Ferguson issue.”
Fagan said people don’t want to be police officers because they don’t want to put themselves through the “liability and the problems” associated with the job.
“Police officers are very much under a microscope right now,” Fagan said. “If a police officer does good, which 99% of our police officers do every day, you don’t hear a thing about it. But if a police officer makes one mistake, it’s news.”
Fagan mentioned it’s been particularly difficult dealing with drugs, especially with a lack of police officers. He said mid-Missouri is dealing with a serious methamphetamine and heroin epidemic.
“When you look at other problems, like the gun violence, the homicide rate … you can pretty much tie probably 90% of that to the problems we’re having with drugs right now,” Fagan said.
Much of the testimony focused on urban areas, specifically St. Louis and Kansas City. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police and a St. Louis police sergeant, suggested the committee focus on preventative measures.
“We must start to focus on the things that make people commit crime: poverty, lack of education, a lack of accessible drug treatment,” Taylor said. “Those things are important because when we don’t, economically, it causes a downfall.”
Taylor said in the past five years, St. Louis had 1,005 homicide victims. The previous five years, there were 700. She said homicides continue to increase because Missouri is failing to address systemic problems that create violent offenders.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner also said crime in the city has gotten deadlier in the past decade.
“From 2015 to 2016, 94% of homicides in St. Louis city involved a gun,” she said, “as opposed to 78% in 2004. Guns were also involved in over 60% of assaults and robberies from 2015 to 2016, compared with 43% in 2004.”
Gardner asked the committee for $500,000 to create a pilot gang intervention unit for St. Louis. She said this type of unit was able to help reduce homicides in the city by 30% in the early 1990s to early 2000s.
The unit worked to build trust in the communities and schools, Gardner said. Officers would help provide job education and training services, but would also have “strategic intel” that helped prosecutors identify “crime drivers.” Gardner said this made sure prosecutors could hold those offenders in custody during the bond process because they were a threat to public safety.
Gov. Mike Parson has laid out a plan to help fight violence in St. Louis that adds patrols by state troopers. According to the governor’s website, the plan that began on Oct. 1 deploys “surges” of troopers on state highways to “apprehend violent criminals, remove them from the interstates, and free up local officers to patrol other high-crime areas.”
Former Gov. Eric Greitens had a similar plan, which was discussed at the committee hearing. Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, asked if these measures helped with urban crime. But Gardner said it didn’t really address any of the violent offenders in the city.
Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, expressed her concerns with those types of plans.
“When you have law enforcement that happens to come from outstate Missouri and you put them deep in the city, in the hood in the city of St. Louis or deep in the city of Kansas City … I have some concerns about that,” Curls said. “When you have a law enforcement person who happens to be either more fearful or out of their comfort zone, sometimes things happen. I just want us to be wary of that.”
Universal background checks and red-flag laws were of the most common suggestions in the hearing. But some lawmakers and witnesses were concerned that passing those provisions could be problematic for legal gun owners.
“Possibly removing handguns from someone who a family member thought might be a danger to themselves or whatever, that’s assuming they’re guilty before they’ve had any kind of due process,” said Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane. “For me, I would find that an infringement on my Second Amendment rights and, actually, my rights as an American citizen.”
The committee is expected to come up with legislative proposals to address gun violence during the 2020 session that begins in January.
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