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Why Some States Are Pushing Cities Out of Law Enforcement

Missouri's Legislature has a plan to take over the police force in St. Louis. It's just one example of states taking direct control of public safety in their largest cities.

St. Louis police at a crime scene on April 29, 2021. Last week, the Missouri House approved a bill that would give the governor control of the city's police force.
(Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
In  Brief:
  • The Missouri House has passed a bill approving a state takeover of St. Louis police.
  • Other states are making moves to take control of police, prosecutors or courts.
  • Although state lawmakers are concerned about crime, local officials charge them with partisan maneuvering and even racism.

  • Missouri didn’t trust St. Louis with weapons. At the start of the Civil War, St. Louis was a Unionist stronghold. Missouri’s pro-secession governor didn’t want the city controlling its own arsenal, so the state took over the local police force — which it then kept for more than a century. St. Louis didn’t get back control of its own police until 2013, after a St. Louis billionaire funded a statewide ballot initiative forcing the issue.

    Now, Missouri lawmakers seem to believe that the handover was a mistake. Last week, the Missouri House approved a bill that would again give the governor control of the St. Louis police. Legislators pointed to the city’s homicide and overall crime rates, claiming they are causing individuals and businesses to leave the city. “This experiment was 11 years in the making and frankly, the promises have been broken,” said state Rep. Justin Sparks, a Republican from a suburban St. Louis district.

    This is part of a larger trend of states not trusting localities when it comes to public safety. Over the past couple of years, Florida, Georgia and Texas have all passed bills blocking localities from cutting police budgets by more than a few percent, in response to efforts to defund police departments or transfer some of their responsibilities elsewhere.

    Last week, the Georgia House passed a bill to create a state board with the authority to remove “rogue” prosecutors. In Texas, where the state is preparing to take over the Houston school district, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has long championed the idea of having the Texas Department of Public Safety take over the Austin Police Department.

    The Mississippi Senate has approved a bill that would give state police the authority to patrol throughout the city of Jackson, as well as giving state courts a say in determining the outcome of some local cases. “This is simply a response to Jackson residents who live in this proposed district who want more police,” said state Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent who represents part of Jackson. “I have constituents who will leave Jackson.”

    In an era of heavy preemption, states have told localities what they can or cannot do when it comes to crime, as well as a whole host of other issues. Now, they’re stepping in to get the results they want directly, even if they’re accused of micromanaging. With crime such a hot issue, policymakers don’t want to leave anything to chance — even if the problems lie outside their jurisdictions.

    That seemed to be the political dynamic in play in Congress, which just voted to overturn the criminal code in Washington, D.C. Federal lawmakers derided recent sentencing changes as being too soft on crime. “When voters perceive problems like high crime, they will take it out on everyone who is in charge,” says Andrew Sidman, a political scientist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

    Needless to say, local officials don’t like the idea. There have been accusations not only of meddling but racism, with mostly white lawmakers voting to take control of public safety in largely or predominantly Black cities. “It reminds me of apartheid,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in January about proposed state takeover bills. “They are looking to colonize Jackson, not only in terms of them putting their military force over Jackson, but also dictating who has province over decision-making.”

    Bill sponsors deny any racial motivation. Sidman warns that regardless of the intent, state officials are playing with fire. Every city has its own dynamics that outsiders inherently can’t understand as well as those who live and work there. “I think these preemption moves are absolutely disastrous,” he says. “Taking police control out of local hands is a very dangerous game to play.”

    We’ve Been Here Before

    St. Louis wasn’t the only city to lose control of its police force during the 19th century. New York City was actually the first, in 1857, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia, among others. “Almost every major police department in that era was taken over,” says Rick Su, a University of North Carolina law professor.

    Kansas City has never gotten control of its police force back from Missouri. The pending legislation regarding St. Louis would restore the model that prevailed until the last decade, with police overseen by a board made up of four members appointed by the governor, plus the mayor.

    The St. Louis and Kansas City takeovers were rooted in Civil War disputes. Other states didn’t trust the patronage machines that ran many cities, Su says, leading them to take over not just police departments but fire departments, municipal utilities and even entire municipalities.

    The goal of so-called ripper legislation was to prevent corruption. But, then as now, there were clearly both partisan and racial dynamics at play. The urban-rural political divide is nothing new, even if it’s become notably more pronounced of late. “That was also a time with perceived ethnic differences,” Su says. “Immigration was the big divide.”

    There’s a mismatch now between cities that are more progressive and more ethnically and racially diverse than the states that surround them. That’s led to preemption legislation regarding everything from minimum wage levels and gun control to public health and LGBTQ rights. State lawmakers almost invariably say there shouldn’t be a patchwork of different rules and regulations within a state.

    But if that’s the case, why have local governments at all? It’s one thing, after all, to step in and block a city that wants to ban single-use plastic bags or straws. It’s another matter to take over an entire local department or function. If the Missouri bill passes, the state would have control of the department, but it would still be funded by St. Louis taxpayers. How can residents demand accountability if they grow unhappy with the local force? “There’s something to be said about the people who live in a particular area picking the people who are responsible for enforcing the law in those areas,” says Sidman, the John Jay College professor.

    The inability of local residents to control their own fate led to the Progressive Era push for home rule more than a century ago, driven by widespread unhappiness with state corruption and general overreach. Maybe the pendulum will ultimately swing that way again.

    For now, it’s clear that things are moving in the other direction. “This is a slap in the face to the voters, as well as a slap in the face to the city of St. Louis,” complains Mayor Tishaura O. Jones.
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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