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[This story was written and produced by Maria Altman from St. Louis Public Radio, used here with permission]
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is right across the street from City Hall. But city hall doesn’t have much say over the police department.
In St. Louis the mayor is just one member of a five-member police board. The rest of the members are appointed by the governor. It’s been that way since the Civil War.
Sitting in the quiet of his office at 200 City Hall, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says it’s high time to bring oversight of the police home.
“It seems like this should be something very simple,” the mayor said. “All we’re asking is for the same thing that virtually every other city has.”
It’s been anything but simple.
Legislative attempts for local control have failed year after year in Jefferson City.
What seemed a promising attempt last fall died amidst bickering in a special session.
So the mayor and A Safer Missouri, a group backed by billionaire Rex Sinquefield, decided to go directly to Missouri voters.
Not everyone in St. Louis is happy with the result.
The organization includes several activist groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU.
They say they were left out of discussions about the proposition’s language, despite the decades of work they did for local control.
Montague Simmons with the Organization for Black Struggle says as a result Prop A fails to include a long-sought-after Civilian Review Board and it prohibits access to police disciplinary records.
“The banner head they’re using for local control, we built credibility for,” Simmons said. “People understand it and they identify it directly with civilian review. They identify it with accountability and transparency. Absent that, people will be buying onto something they can’t live with.”
Mayor Slay insists Prop A does nothing to prohibit a Civilian Review Board.
Brooke Foster with A Safer Missouri says that under the measure police officers’ disciplinary records would be open, if an officer is convicted of a crime.
“But during that process, during the whole legal process those records are closed simply because it’s something we feel is a protection to our police officers,” Foster said. “If they’re in a situation where they’re accused of something they didn’t do, we want to make sure they’re treated fairly, treated right.”
The police union strongly opposed local control for years.
Then last fall the St. Louis Police Officers Association withdrew its opposition after reaching a compromise with Prop A’s backers.
As a result, the measure promises to keep police pensions in the state’s hands and prohibits political influence within the department.
Still, business manager Jeff Roorda acknowledges many members, including the union's president, have expressed personal doubts about Prop A.
“We understand that there’s a lot of actives and retirees that are reticent about this,” Roorda said. “You know this is a system that’s been in place for 150 years. From our perspective it’s a system that’s worked well for 150 years, so switching to something new is always scary.”
Mayor Slay says there’s nothing for police officers or residents to fear.
He says Prop A just makes the police force more accountable to citizens.
“The people of St. Louis pay the bills here; it’s a $172 million department,” Slay said. “The people of St. Louis should have their own police department.”
After all, the mayor says that’s the way it’s done in towns and cities throughout the U.S.