JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Ten years after gaining local control of its police for the first time since the Civil War, the city of St. Louis has more murders than ever before — and Missouri's Republican lawmakers are again pressuring for a state takeover of the police force.
The debate over policing power in St. Louis — a racially diverse, heavily Democratic city long vexed by violent crime — carries political and racial overtones like those that have roiled other cities and states this year. But data suggest neither state nor local control may make much difference when it comes to stemming homicides.
“Lots of things matter a whole lot more, like widespread social unrest, the economy crashing, that sort of thing,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who analyzed the city's crime statistics.
With violent crime troubling many large cities, Republicans nationwide have pushed a tough-on-crime agenda that would make it harder for the accused to get out of jail on bail and lock up people longer when convicted of certain offenses. Now a proposed state takeover of the St. Louis police department is being touted as a way to fight crime.
Missouri provides a unique case study in the effectiveness of state or local control of police departments.
For much of its history, police in Missouri's two largest cities of St. Louis and Kansas City had been overseen by state boards appointed predominantly by the governor. That ended for St. Louis in 2013, after voters approved a statewide ballot measure to return police oversight to city officials. Around then, a mayor's task force in Kansas City narrowly recommended continuing state control over its police.
Since 2014, both cities have seen homicide surges. Kansas City's homicide rate rose by an average yearly rate of 6.7%, topping 150 deaths each of the past four years, according to Rosenfeld's research. Homicide rates in St. Louis, long higher than in Kansas City, increased by an average annual rate of 8.2%, exceeding 190 deaths each of the past four years. Both cities also saw upticks in homicides in the early 1990s, when both had state control of their police.
Despite the slightly larger increase in St. Louis, "there is no statistically significant difference between the change in homicide in St. Louis and the change in homicide in Kansas City since local control was restored in St. Louis,” Rosenfeld said.
Yet some state lawmakers contend it's time to declare local police control a failure in St. Louis.
The Republican-led state House passed a bill last month to empower GOP Gov. Mike Parson to appoint four St. Louis police board commissioners. The mayor, Democrat Tishaura O. Jones, would serve as the fifth commissioner. The Republican-led Senate is expected to debate the plan before its session ends in mid-May.
Jones said the takeover effort in her city “isn’t about public safety.”
“This is about power and politics,” she said. “If you look at all of the cities where we are facing control or overarching authority over local law enforcement, what’s the trend? They’re all led by Black mayors.”
Lawmakers have exerted control over liberal, largely minority communities in Washington, D.C., and Jackson, Mississippi.
President Joe Biden recently signed a Republican-sponsored resolution nullifying the District of Columbia's new crime laws, including measures eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes and reducing maximum penalties for burglary, carjacking and robbery.
Tensions flared in Mississippi as the majority-white and Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to expand the territory of a state-run police department inside the majority Black capital city, which is governed by Democrats. GOP Gov. Tate Reeves signed the measure into law Friday.
Beyond debating control of the St. Louis police, Missouri lawmakers also are weighing a bill allowing the state to take over prosecution of violent crimes in that city. Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey is seeking to oust the locally elected prosecutor, Democratic Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, alleging negligence. If a judge agrees and removes Gardner, Parson would appoint her replacement.
Policing in St. Louis comes with a stigma of association to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in 2014. Officer Darren Wilson was not charged in the death of the Black 18-year-old, but months of protests followed, along with criticism of policing practices across the St. Louis area.
Racial justice protests newly spread nationwide after George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis officer in 2020. Some law enforcement agencies have since struggled to recruit and retain officers; the St. Louis and Kansas City departments each have vacancy rates around 20%.
Jones, a critic of what she calls the “arrest and incarcerate" model of policing, has shifted millions of dollars toward addressing mental health issues and supporting civil rights enforcement since winning election as St. Louis mayor in 2021.
If the state took control of St. Louis police, more money could be directed to increasing patrols and adding more officers on the streets, according to the bill's sponsor, Republican state Rep. Brad Christ of suburban St. Louis County. He said a state takeover could boost officer morale, noting it has the support of local police union leadership.
“Is this going to fix crime?” Christ asked rhetorically. “Is it going to go from 200 homicides to zero? No. But this is the start ... to build the police department back to where it actually needs to be to put a crime plan in place and actually address crime.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas disputes that. The Black Democrat notes his city set a record high for homicides in 2020 and had its second-highest total last year with state control of police.
"It seems as if state control does nothing more than perhaps alienate the people of a community," he said.
Theoretically, local control of police could strengthen trust between residents and officers, making witnesses and victims more willing to come forward, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
But "to simply switch the governing structure and expect suddenly homicides are going to go down, I think that’s unrealistic,” Novak said. “Those types of changes, if any, would occur over the course of many years.”
Salter reported from O'Fallon, Missouri.