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Byers' Beat: What's different about latest push for state control of St. Louis police department?

Four legislators are pledging to file bills to return control of police department to the state. They're not the first, but will they be the last?
Credit: alex_schmidt_13 - stock.adobe.com

Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.

ST. LOUIS — We’ve been to this dance before.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association wants the state to get control of the police department again.

A handful of legislators are promising to file bills that would do just that next session.

It seems as if it’s happened every year since voters supported a statewide ballot measure to give the department back to the city in 2012.

The odd construct of having a state-run police department dates to the Civil War era, when police departments became part of the state militia.

Kansas City and St. Louis were established cities, and their police have remained under state control for most of the time ever since.

Arguably, no St. Louis official fought harder to get the police department back to city control than former Mayor Francis Slay. For years, his administration lobbied legislators.

The police union seemed to outmaneuver the Slay administration at every turn, successfully keeping the department under the state’s wing.

That is until Slay’s administration dangled a carrot in front of the union it could not refuse: a shot at their first-ever union contract.

After that, the union publicly supported the measure. Officers went on to get that contract.

But they’ve been at an impasse since April 2021 with now Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration. The union’s push to go back to a state-run system predates the impasse.

The union’s public support of local control waned as crime rose and the roster shrunk. The union says the city is in a crisis, with manpower lower than it’s ever been.

Still, Slay is steadfast in his support of keeping the police department accountable to the mayor – even if that mayor is at odds with the police they say they support.

“Law enforcement ought to be a local responsibility,” Slay said. “The police department makes a lot of decisions that involve the people of St. Louis.”

And he said, when things would go wrong with the department, citizens wouldn’t go to the governor.

“They came to me to find out what I was doing about it,” Slay said.

Under state control, the mayor was always one of a five-member police board that governed the department.

The governor appointed the other members.

Some of Slay’s battles with the board were epic. 

There was the time the board tried lifting a residency requirement just minutes after Slay left a meeting early to make it to another engagement.

Slay turned around and sued the board, accusing it of violating the state’s Sunshine law because the residency requirement wasn’t on the agenda.

Then there was the time a board member intervened in the arrest of his nephew.

Slay couldn’t do anything to hold him accountable.

And there were many times Slay said he would argue with board members about budgetary issues.

Those are the types of problems Slay says he remembers, and why he can’t support the police union members pushing for a return to state control and the elected officials promising to lead their charge.

“When it comes down to it, accountability is going to be with the city, the mayor as it should be and not somebody that’s up in Jefferson City that you rarely see or hear from,” he said.

Slay threw out another scenario.

“If they want to take the police department away from the city of St. Louis, why not do it with every other police department in the entire state of Missouri?” he said. “Out state lawmakers wouldn’t stand for it.

“So why do it to St. Louis?”

In other words, Slay thinks everyone should be invited to this dance – or no one should come at all.

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