Public Safety & Justice

St. Louis Wants to Control Its Own Police Force Again

In the nineteenth century, some states took control of local police forces. Today, St. Louis is the last big city whose force is still under state control.
by | December 2011
 

It seemed like a good idea 150 years ago. Now that just about everybody agrees it’s a bad idea, Missouri can’t seem to get rid of it.

The idea is having the state run the local police force in St. Louis. The state took control back in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. Segregationist Gov. Claiborne Jackson wasn’t crazy about having the Unionist city control its own large arsenal. State takeovers of local police were also trendy back then, with New York taking the lead in 1857 and cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia following suit.

But the Civil War has been over for a while now, and every other big city has long since won back control of its own police. (One outlier is Kansas City, Mo.)

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, like his predecessors, argues that because the city pays the police department’s bills, it should have the authority to run the force. As it stands, St. Louis residents have no recourse at the polls if they’re unhappy about how the police are performing, he says. And he claims that the city would save $4.5 million in duplicative administrative costs if given direct control.

For some time, local control was stymied by the police union, which worried about its effect on pensions and political interference from the city’s Board of Aldermen. Local-control legislation that passed the Missouri House earlier this year allayed their concerns, and the prospect of a ballot initiative to remedy the matter further focused the Legislature’s attention.

But then things took an odd turn. The bill was taken hostage by senators wanting to push through their version of tax-credit legislation. The House refused to play ball, and both bills died.

Slay had high hopes for another shot during a special session in October, but, again, unrelated disputes got in the way. Legislative leaders refused to move any bills unless an economic development package went through, and so nothing was passed.

Despite the disappointment, there’s always hope that the “near-perfect” consensus that has developed in favor of local control, as Jeff Roorda of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association describes it, will push the legislation forward at a later date.

It’s long overdue, says Andrew Theising, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. “St. Louis in the post-Civil War era was really messed up, and it actually was a very smart move to take local control away,” he says.

But those days are long over, and the state has sometimes interfered politically in the doings of the local force, which at this point is a power that’s difficult to defend. “The city of St. Louis is justified in asking for the return of local control,” Theising says.

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