What happens when a state decides that one of its cities isn’t making the right decisions on crime and other issues? Can it then usurp the city’s authority? These questions come to the forefront as Missouri’s legislature considers a bill that would allow the state to take over the St. Louis police department.
With heightened crime rates in cities across the country, people are looking for answers, and especially in St. Louis. But where does liberty come into play?
Missouri v. St. Louis
Missouri state lawmakers, with the backing of St. Louis police, are pushing a bill that would take control of the department from the city’s progressive Mayor Tishaura Jones and hand it to Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican. “Law enforcement unions argue that local control has ‘put politics in policing’ and that state oversight would help address an increase in homicides and a drop in police morale and staffing levels,” according to The Intercept.
Supporters are backing Senate Bill 78, which would resurrect a Civil War-era system that was overturned by the voters in 2012. It would mean St. Louis would become one of the few cities that does not control its own police agency.
This comes two years after the city’s voters elected Jones, who has been criticized for taking a soft approach to crime. The St. Louis City Board of Aldermen is now controlled by progressive lawmakers after they recently won the majority. Jones told The Intercept that law enforcement is “definitely not perfect,” but that those closest to the ground are best equipped to deal with disturbing crime rates.
The debate over this bill is a microcosm of what has been occurring in other states as governors and legislatures weigh taking over local law enforcement operations. Critics like Jones argue that this is an effort to politicize policing. The mayor pointed to a “common thread of the cities that I am aware of where this is happening”– that “where there has been a concerted attempt to strip power away from local leadership, the mayors are Black.”
Senate Bill 78 is not the only one of this type being considered by the state legislature. Another House bill would allow the governor to strip prosecutors of jurisdiction over charging certain violent crimes. This is likely an effort against Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who has elicited criticism from Republicans because she vowed to hold police accountable, halt the detention of nonviolent suspects, and eliminate cash bail. Those opposing the measure contend that this is not a sincere effort to curb violent crime. They accuse proponents of attacking officials who are not as accommodating to law enforcement officers as those who came before them.
As it stands currently, Jones possesses the authority to hire and fire police chiefs. If the measure becomes law, this power would be granted to a board appointed by the governor.
This debate is also reminiscent of one that took place in Texas when Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to have the state take control of law enforcement in Austin in 2020. “This proposal for the state to take over the Austin Police Department is one strategy I’m looking at,” the governor tweeted. “We can’t let Austin’s defunding & disrespect for law enforcement … endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle.”
A Question of Liberty?
Jones’ contention that the government closest to the people is the best entity to address the concerns of communities nationwide is a sentiment many would affirm. Indeed, while local politics has lost luster over the past few decades in favor of national operations, many argue that a mayor and city council have more direct impact on the lives of the citizenry than the president and Congress.
So, should the state have the authority to wrest power from local officials that were elected by the city’s residents? If the voters of St. Louis wanted folks like Jones and Gardner in office, they likely understood what policies they would employ – and cast ballots for them.
Perhaps the community does not want nonviolent offenders being detained. Maybe it does not want a government that seemingly coddles members of law enforcement even when they abuse their authority. One could argue that the state taking control of the city’s police is overruling the will of the people. If the populace is unable to choose its leadership – especially at the local level – how can one say they truly have liberty?
On the other hand, one could suggest that if the local government is not doing what it takes to protect people’s rights, the state has an obligation to intervene. Increased crime rates result in more violence, which means more criminals are violating the rights of the citizens. If the mayor and city council are not up to the task of preventing this, then they are not doing the job they were hired to do.
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