ST. LOUIS — As Missouri Republicans push to wrestle control of the St. Louis police department out of the city's hands, a former mayor is urging legislators to consider the corruption, scandals and improper influence peddling that he said were rampant under the state control era.
Francis Slay, the longest-serving mayor in St. Louis history, led the charge to bring the police department under local control a decade ago.
Ultimately 64% of Missouri voters approved of the plan to dissolve the state-run Board of Police Commissioners, which was seated with political appointees, and to give the city control over its law enforcement agency.
"It was a dysfunctional format," Slay said. "They got to make decisions on behalf of the department. And by the way, this is the biggest budget component in city government is the police department."
Slay, who led the city from 2001 to 2017, was the first mayor to hire a police chief in more than a century. The state legislature stripped St. Louis of its control over the local department during the Civil War era. He said the first few years of his administration — before the return of local control — were full of embarrassing abuses of power and political influence from police commissioners who often used sworn officers to carry out personal favors.
"Some of them liked walking around with badges," he said. "Some of them would have police officers drive them around, be their chauffeurs."
He also described instances where police commissioners sexually harassed officers in exchange for a promotion, or interfered with criminal investigations to squash evidence to protect friends or family members.
"They were not accountable directly to St. Louis city government," Slay said.
Bill Monroe, a 77-year-old former St. Louis police detective, told similar tales from his vantage point inside the department where he started working in 1967.
"As a Black man, 21 years of age during the Vietnam conflict, I come home and I couldn't get a job," he said. "Because I didn't have an 'ace.'"
An 'ace,' Monroe said, was a politically connected business owner or influence peddler who had enough clout to persuade the Board of Police Commissioners to hire officers or promote them within the department.
Eventually, a local business owner who knew Monroe vouched for him, and he got into the academy and landed his first job as a patrolman.
Monroe claims he later faced demotion and punishment when he arrested "the wrong people," and was told in no uncertain terms that he had crossed people with political clout.
"It didn't take long to see who was in charge," he said. "We weren't."
"Under state control, there is no citizen's oversight," Monroe said. "We would have no say whatsoever."
Slay suggested if the GOP-led legislature was serious about stopping violent crime, it would give police more tools to disarm and arrest criminals.
"Here's what concerns me about the rhetoric I'm hearing from those that want to take the police department away from the City of St. Louis. First of all, there really is no accountability when the state has control," he said. "There is no accountability at the state level. You tell me who's accountable for our police department? Where do you go if you have an issue with the police department?
"Those within state government that are asking for state control of the police department ought to just look in the mirror," Slay said. "I mean, what is the state doing to help us with crime here? They're not doing their job.
"They have gun laws that are so permissive that you have kids walking around the street with guns, teenagers with guns, automatic weapons. And there's nothing the police can do about it," he said. "Yet here they want to take control of dealing with crime in the City of St. Louis when they're not doing the job I believe they should be doing."
Mayor Tishaura Jones (D-St. Louis) has repeatedly said Governor Mike Parson is an advocate for local control and suggested he wouldn't favor his party's push to take the department out of the city's control.
During an unrelated press conference in Creve Coeur on Tuesday afternoon, Governor Mike Parson would not commit to supporting or opposing the plan to strip St. Louis of local control.
"Well, we'll see what that looks like. I mean, we're still in the process of that. We'll see what that looks like," Parson replied. "That's been a discussion that's been around for a long time. We'll see what that comes out... if it comes out of the Senate and the House. We'll take a look at it. But as I've always said, I'm never going to say whether I'm going to veto or pass anything until I see what it looks like."
"Don't fall into the pattern that we're seeing all across the nation when Black people become empowered," Monroe urged Parson. "Because that's what's going on. Not just in St. Louis, in other cities, also."
"Taking control over the police department is not the answer," he said, leaning forward in his seat. "The answer is education, skills and job training for our young black kids who are the target of every negative thing you see.
"Education, skills, and job training is what the city needs, not state control over the police or its schools."