Public safety in Missouri belongs to the people, not the state

April 24, 2023 5:45 am

The St. Louis Gateway Arch on Oct. 10, 2009 (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images).

In a move with parallels across the country, conservative lawmakers in Jefferson City are advancing legislation to strip control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) from the city and give it to the state. The bill comes a decade after Missourians voted to reverse a Civil War-era system that had kept St. Louis law enforcement under state control for 152 years.

Those behind the legislation are pushing behind the scenes to ensure speedy passage and their intent is clear: To place St. Louis in the same position as Kansas City–the residents of which have been fighting for years to regain control of their local police–deepening an alarming trend among White, conservative state legislators acting to strip power from Black leaders in cities with significant or majority Black populations.

Misleadingly dubbed the “Safer St. Louis Act,” the legislation comes in response to grassroots efforts to realign the city’s public safety systems to meet community needs. When an officer with the Ferguson police department killed Mike Brown in 2014, communities in and around the city rose in protest and began the work of redesigning their public safety systems, in part by replacing law enforcement-led systems of punishment with community-led systems of care.

This work was bolstered by the election of Mayor Tishaura Jones.

Jones and her administration brought a holistic approach to public safety challenges facing the city, relying on more than just police to meet the needs of the people.

For example, the St. Louis 911 Diversion and Crisis Response Units seek to improve responses by sending mental health clinicians alongside police officers when an officer alone can’t solve the problem. In their first two years, these programs have improved responses in over 5,000 cases representing more than 4,000 work hours, prevented unnecessary contact between residents and criminal legal systems, and saved over $10 million in the process.

“It’s about deploying the resources we currently have,” Jones says, “and making sure we get the other resources we need to deploy the right resource to the right call.”

The legislators working to take control of SLMPD away from the city aren’t interested in that, however, nor are they interested in the will of the people. Both history and the front page of our daily papers are riddled with examples of White-controlled power structures using every tool they have to prevent Black people from wresting power away; this, like recent events in Tennessee, is another such example.

“This is a direct slap in the face to our citizens,” Jones recently told reporters, “because the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution…. I don’t think that they would approve of having a board that’s appointed by people in Jefferson City to govern their day-to-day lives.”

The bill highlights problems both inside and outside of policing without stipulating how to address them. Issues with recruitment and retention, for instance, aren’t a product of the current city administration–they’re nationwide problems that haven’t been solved by bigger budgets. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that a state takeover would make St. Louis safer; Kansas Citians, after all, have just lived through the deadliest three years on record.

The Center for Policing Equity (CPE) is proud to support community-led efforts in St. Louis to reduce policing’s harms, facilitate the establishment of trust, and build public safety strategies that will deliver genuine safety, across the city.

In St. Louis as elsewhere, Black people are stopped, searched, and face police violence at rates that are entirely disproportionate to their numbers in U.S. society, a result of law enforcement policies, procedures, and culture that have been guided–since before the nation was founded–by the exigencies of White supremacy. The presence or absence of Black officers doesn’t act to mitigate those facts; only transformational change can genuinely address hundreds of years of racial inequities.

This power grab can only be properly understood within that context. Should the bill become law, it won’t make St. Louis safer–but neither will it stop residents from continuing the work to build a more fair, just, and equitable city.

After all, unlike lawmakers sitting under a dome 135 miles away, they know exactly what they have to lose.

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Hans Menos
Hans Menos

Hans Menos is the vice president of the Triage Response Team at The Center for Policing Equity. He served as the executive director of the City of Philadelphia's Police Advisory Commission from 2017-2020.