'At a tipping point': Lawmakers debate plan to put St. Louis police under state control

"I've only been here a couple weeks ... I'm looking at how we respond to all these crimes. Give myself a chance. Give the department a chance," Chief Robert Tracy said

By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Backed by the city's police union, a state senator Wednesday outlined the latest GOP attempt to put the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department back under state control.

Sen. Nick Schroer, a St. Charles County Republican, said his legislation could help get a handle on violent crime in the city, a decade after Missouri voters put the city back in charge of its police force.

"In the last 10 years, police morale has tanked. These officers are understaffed and overworked without the necessary tools to protect and serve the community and protect themselves," Schroer said at a press conference before a Senate committee debated the plan.

Top police brass in St. Louis, including new Police Chief Robert Tracy and outgoing city Public Safety Director Dan Isom, say the change is not needed.

"There is no evidence to support that returning control to the state will have any measurable impact," said Isom, who is leaving for a job at Ameren Missouri. "I think the most important thing is strong leadership in the police department."

Tracy, who was hired in December, urged lawmakers to give him a chance to implement his own changes.

"I've only been here a couple weeks. I'm looking under the hood. I'm looking at strategy. I am looking at how we respond to all these crimes. Give myself a chance. Give the department a chance," said Tracy, the former police chief in Wilmington, Delaware.

The measure is among a number of bills that have been introduced in the Legislature this year as part of the latest GOP-led anti-crime effort, even though data compiled by the Post-Dispatch shows violent crime totals actually declined between 2020 and 2021 after seeing year-over-year increases from 2018 through 2020.

The city's homicide rate hit a record in 2020, but has retreated since then.

Despite that, Schroer pointed to businesses that have left the city or say they will leave the city because of persistent criminal activity. And, he said Missourians living outside the city are avoiding it because of fears about becoming victims of crime.

Among those urging action was St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who pledged to help resolve what he described as a St. Louis problem that has spread across the region.

Sgt. Donnell Walters, president of the Ethical Society of Police, stood with Schroer at the press conference and urged lawmakers to advance the legislation.

"The decadelong experiment of local control has failed," Walters said.

Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said working conditions have become strained amid an inability to recruit and retain enough officers.

"It's never been as bad as it's been," said Schroeder, who has worked under both state and local control. "I can tell you right now we're at a tipping point."

Isom said contract negotiations between the city and the police union are ongoing.

"We do recognize that there are some pay gaps," Isom said, declining to offer more specifics about the status of talks.

Under the proposal, a Board of Police Commissioners with four members appointed by the governor would serve with the president of the Board of Aldermen beginning in August 2023.

The board would be required to keep a police force of not less than 1,142 members at a time when the current roster is hovering around 1,000.

The board also would be required to boost the starting pay for an officer of about $50,000 by $4,000 beginning in July 2024.

The legislation would overturn the statewide vote in 2012, the culmination of decades of advocacy by local leaders. At the time, then Mayor Francis Slay argued the board's make-up made it more difficult to respond quickly to crime trends or direct department spending.

"This department will not last another year under local control," Schroeder told members of the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety.

"Something has got to be done," said committee chairman Travis Fitzwater, R- Holts Summit.

Isom expressed doubts that a state takeover would alter hiring woes at the department. He said, for example, the attrition rate among police can be partly attributed to opposition to police by some residents of the city.

"The culture has changed somewhat," Isom said. "There is a level of frustration among officers."

Democrats on the committee signaled that they oppose the change.

"I believe St. Louisans can govern themselves," said Sen. Greg Razer, D- Kansas City.

Republicans also are pressing to give a state-appointed special prosecutor the authority to handle most murder, assault, robbery and carjacking cases in the city instead of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office.

The sponsor of that initiative, Rep. Lane Roberts, a Joplin Republican and the former state public safety director, said the change could alleviate pressure on Gardner's office, which has struggled to keep up with a mounting backlog of hundreds of time-consuming homicide and serious felony cases.

The special prosecutor would serve a five-year term and be allowed to hire up to 15 assistant prosecutors and 15 staff, including investigators and clerks, all paid for by the state, according to the bill. At the end of the five-year term, the governor could extend the appointment for another five years if "a threat to public safety and health or a backlog of criminal cases in the city of St. Louis still exists."

Gardner's office has called the measure "misguided, unconstitutional and a threat to our democracy."

Tracy told the panel he plans to talk with Gardner in the coming weeks.

"I have to at least give this a chance," Tracy said.

Schroer's legislation is Senate Bill 78.


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