Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is backing legislative efforts to make carjacking a state crime, and to lift the requirement that some St. Louis police officers live in the city.
“We are offering two solutions to two problems we know exist,” Schmitt, a Republican, said Tuesday at a news conference in St. Louis. “We need tougher sentencing for carjackings. And we have a police officer shortage. So let’s open up the talent base.”
The two initiatives are part of Schmitt’s broader focus on violent crime in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield, which he said holds back investment in the state. He again touted the success of his Safer Streets initiative, which has attorneys in his office serving as special federal prosecutors to boost the number of cases that can be tried.
“But we cannot stop there. We must do more,” he said. “We are at a tipping point. We have to decide whether we are going to ignore the problems that are plaguing our communities, or if we want to tackle them head on, challenge the old ways of doing things, and actually do the things we know need to be done.”
The St. Louis police department is regularly down more than 100 officers, and Schmitt and the Republican lawmakers who stood with him Tuesday blame that in part on the requirement that most police officers hired before 2013 must live in the city limits.
“The most serious problem is the dangerous stifling on recruitment,” said state Rep. Derek Grier, R-Chesterfield, who will sponsor the legislation in the House. “With the current climate and attitudes, it’s hard enough to recruit. Put simply, there’s a wealth of talented men and women who want to serve the city that they love, but they can’t. The last thing our officers should worry about is where they lay their head at night.”
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, will sponsor the bill in the Senate. He called it one of his "signature pieces of legislation.”
Mayor Lyda Krewson and Police Chief John Hayden both support lifting the residency requirement, as does Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and Director of Personnel Richard Frank. Aldermen earlier this year defeated an effort to ask city voters to lift the requirement for all city employees.
St. Louis firefighters won the right to move outside the city in 2012, after the state Supreme Court upheld a law that lifted the residency requirement as long as the St. Louis Public Schools were unaccredited. The district regained full accreditation in 2017 and returned to local oversight this year.
Under current state laws, prosecutors in Missouri generally charge carjackings as robbery, stealing, or assault. But the charges are not filled uniformly, which means sentencing is not uniform, either.
The legislation endorsed by Schmitt would create a single offense of motor vehicle hijacking. Defendants would face a minimum of 10 years in prison, more if they used a deadly weapon or the victim was under the age of 17. There have been more than 300 carjackings in St. Louis this year.
“For those who feel emboldened to take other’s property, we send a clear message — you will be prosecuted,” Schmitt said. “We will no longer stand by while you victimize, traumatize or injure, sometimes fatally, our mothers, our grandmothers, our fathers, our sons, our brothers and sisters, even if it’s for a so-called joyride.”
A vehicle hijacking statute passed the state House last year but did not make it across the finish line in the Senate. State Rep. David Gregory, R-St. Louis, and state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, will again sponsor the measures in their respective chambers.
In a statement, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said the state’s existing robbery laws are adequate to prosecute carjackings.
“The circuit attorney does not believe in creating ‘boutique’ crimes or fancy labels for criminal behavior,” Gardner said. “Such conduct is the work of some politicians to appear tough on crime without understanding the realities of law enforcement or the criminal justice system. We do not need more laws on the books criminalizing that which is already illegal. We should not simply relabel existing crimes.”
Hayden made it clear Tuesday what he believed would be the biggest help in fighting crime in the city.
“I can sum it up in pretty much one sentence: If people were required to have a permit to carry a gun, I wouldn’t see people on East Grand and Broadway talking on the phone with an AK-47,” he said. “A permit is needed.”
Schatz, who earlier this year formed a special committee on public safety, called it a “conversation that maybe we should be having.”
“Again, what the committee wanted to hear was from law enforcement,” he said. “What are the tools they think are the most effective for them to be able to do their jobs? We’ll go through those ideas, and we’ll make a determination if there’s something that could be done that wouldn’t prohibit law-abiding citizens from their right to carry arms.”
Schmitt said he was busy enforcing the laws already on the books. He again touted the Safer Streets initiative, which has indicted dozens of people on federal firearms charges.
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