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Missouri Republicans propose state takeover of St. Louis police department

Police unions plan to back the proposal as they clash with reform-minded progressives at City Hall.

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — While Mayor Tishaura Jones' administration prepares to pick the next chief of police in St. Louis, a growing number of Missouri Republicans are calling for a return to the days when the state controlled the city's police department.

Several lawmakers have already traveled to Jefferson City ahead of the starting bell for the 2023 legislative session in order to begin the process of filing their bills. At least four bills calling for a state takeover of the St. Louis police department have surfaced in the House, with support swelling in the Senate as well.

Rep. Dean Plocher, the incoming Republican Speaker of the House, spoke with 5 On Your Side in a Monday afternoon phone call while he was on the road touring districts and key state agencies with incoming freshmen House members. 

"I intend to put the bills to committee," he said, adding the proposals are "certainly going to get vetted."

Plocher said crime has proven "immensely destabilizing" for direct victims of violence and indirect victims like businesses that may lose customers or workers to safer cities. 

"We do have a crime problem. I don't think that's a shocker," Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis) said. 

Aldridge grew up in an era when the city police department was previously under state control. 

"The residents of the city of St. Louis probably couldn't tell any difference," he said. "Our crime was still high at times."

When Republicans raised this idea last year, Public Safety Director Dan Isom opposed the idea in a letter to legislators. 

"The local leadership of the St. Louis Police Department has produced results," Isom wrote. "From 2020 to 2021, our homicide rate fell over 25 percent. Our violent crime rate fell 23 percent over the same time period. Allowing local leaders to make choices about their community and their resources works."

When St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann proposed a similar idea weeks ago, Mayor Jones said a state takeover was unlikely to see support in the Governor's office.

"Our governor believes in local control," she said at the time. 

Isom warned a state takeover that hobbles the mayor's control would "...remove local accountability and diminish trust between community members and police."

While Plocher said he sees crime in other parts of the state, he described St. Louis as a "hot spot," and said, "Leadership in St. Louis has failed to address the problem."

Later, he softened his direct criticism of the current leadership and acknowledged their intentions were in the right place, but that state legislators have a duty to improve public safety in policy when they can. 

"Our goal here is to look at a variety of ways to control crime," he said. 

In his letter, Isom warned lawmakers that pursuing a state power grab "ignores the role of the voters and the tattered legacy of state-controlled policing in St. Louis." 

"State control originally took hold in St. Louis because Claiborne Jackson, Missouri's segregationist governor during the Civil War, feared a city in which the Union would control the arsenal," Isom wrote.

Rep. Aldridge said the historic roots of racism underlying the 19th-century decision for a state-controlled police department likely contributed to a culture that disproportionately impacted people of color. 

"Police officers back in the day were more known as being kind of like the slave catchers, and being under state control, there was more an attitude to be more aggressive to people who look like me," Aldridge said. 

A spokesman for the police union said they plan to support a state takeover. Legislators advancing the measures said a police union agenda would likely enjoy smoother sailing in Jefferson City than it would in City Hall where progressive reform-minded politicians have worked to reimagine or reshape modern-day police departments.

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