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How Mayor Jones outmaneuvered police unions to defeat state takeover of St. Louis police department

Republican leadership in the Missouri Senate rejected the pitch from the St. Louis Police Officers Association to return to an era of state control over city police.

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Tishaura Jones hasn't worked in the Missouri legislature for a decade, but in a high profile fight for control of the St. Louis police department, the "recovering legislator," showed she still knows how to maneuver in Jefferson City. 

When the final gavel dropped in the Missouri Senate on Friday night, the police department remained in the mayor's hands, and by extension, in the hands of city voters. 

A measure to strip the city of control of the police department sailed through the House with relative ease, but stalled in the Senate where Republican leaders sided with Democrats and the mayor to shut down the state takeover. 

“As this session ends, SLMPD remains under city control, accountable to St. Louis taxpayers instead of police board bureaucrats," Jones crowed in a Friday night statement. "The failure of this takeover shows a strong consensus among leaders: A state takeover of SLMPD would be tremendously costly to the State of Missouri while doing nothing to make our city safer."

Jones, her newly hired police chief Robert Tracy, and her aides worked tirelessly through the 2023 legislative session to defend local control of the department, traveling back and forth to the state Capitol to deliver their message to lawmakers directly. 

Their lobbying efforts warned a state takeover would undermine the new chief, could come at a considerable cost to state taxpayers, and predicted it would invite a protracted legal battle over the proposal's constitutionality. 

The St. Louis Police Officers Association and its lobbyists never mounted an effective counter, and couldn't muster a satisfactory answer to repeated questions from Jones' staff asking to explain how reviving a board of politically-appointed police commissioners would actually improve public safety results or reduce violent crime.

The message appeared to resonate with Republicans in leadership.

"I think the new police chief needs a chance to make the system work before we intervene," Senate Majority Leader Cindy O'Laughlin (R-Shelbina) said in an op-ed during the waning days of the session. "Inserting Jefferson City politics into the control of their police force is not a next step."

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay joined Jones in her campaign to tank the takeover.

Senator Nick Schroer (R-St. Charles County) was not available for an interview to describe where his proposal fell apart, but in text messages during the final days of the session, he accused his Republican colleagues of being "beholden to a donor and not residents of Missouri impacted by crime."

"I do think the Republican infighting did play a significant role," Senator Brian Williams (D-University City) said. "Clearly voters in the city of Saint Louis should have some say with their police department."

Momentum appeared to be heading in favor of a state takeover when Republican megadonor Rex Sinquefield personally intervened to lobby lawmakers against it, according to several legislators familiar with his pitch. 

Before Sinquefield got involved, Jones and her administration moved quickly to ink a new contract with the police department, something that hadn't been in place since 2020. 

In addition to giving officers significant pay raises, the unions agreed to language that would negate the raises if the state takeover occurred. 

"That was perfect. That was 'Chef's kiss,'" Rep. LaKeySha Bosley (D-St. Louis) said as she recounted the negotiations. "I think the mayor outfoxed Republicans."

In taking a victory lap, Jones highlighted the police union's involvement in a scheme she said would amount to diluting democracy.

“Improving public safety requires local trust and accountability, but the leadership of the POA and ESOP worked alongside right-wing outstate Republicans trying to overturn the results of our elections," Jones said. "They failed, and St. Louisans will not forget their desperate attempt to take power from residents and hand it over to Jefferson City."

The STLPOA declined to comment for this story, but the Ethical Society of Police took a more conciliatory tone, while attempting to save face and claim credit for advancing the interest of its members through the bitter fight. 

"The headlines may call this a failed attempt at changing control of our department," the ESOP Board said in a statement. "The Ethical Society of Police feels that now the issues within the department and for our officers are being heard and taken more seriously. 

"We are voters as well as residents of the city of St. Louis," ESOP said. "And at no point do we disrespect nor insult our current administration. Our stance is simply about management. We felt our appeals and our issues were not of concern or importance."

ESOP, which represents Black police officers, said the Jones administration still has yet to offer adequate pay raises to civilian police staff like dispatchers, park rangers, city marshals, or other non-commissioned police employees. 

"We agree to disagree but we will not take a back seat, and we stand firm in our demands to make city employees a priority," the ESOP board statement said. "We will always stand for our members."

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