JEFFERSON CITY - Only two cities in the nation lack direct control of their police departments. Both of those cities are located in Missouri, and one of them, St. Louis, was recently ranked the No. 1 Most Dangerous City in America, according to FBI statistics reported to Time magazine. Some say it's time to take back control.
The Missouri Senate Progress and Development Committee heard testimonies on Wednesday about allowing the city of St. Louis to take control of its police department from the state government.
More than 100 people sat in on the hearing while an overflow group watched the events unfold on a TV in the hall. Four people spoke in favor of the proposition, including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Slay said local control would make the police department more effective, allowing it to save millions of dollars by merging departments and being accountable.
The president of the city's Board of Aldermen, Lewis Reed, called to attention the history behind the state control of the police department. He said in 1861, Gov. Claiborne Jackson created the local board of police commissioners and turned over the arms of St. Louis to the confederacy.
Redditt Hudson, from the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, took Reed's history lesson one step further.
"Legislatively, the intent of the guys who put this in place was to disenfranchise the people of St. Louis," Hudson said, "and the people that wanted to do that were confederate sympathizers."
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, opposed the bill. Her arguments against it focused mainly on Chapter 84.160 of the Missouri Constitution, which would be eliminated should the bill pass. The chapter serves as a written guarantee of benefits to widows and children of police officers, as well as maimed police officers.
Nadal's concerns were echoed by Joe Steiger, the vice president of the St. Louis Police Officer Association, as well as a few other active and retired police officers.
"The single most dangerous part of this legislation is the risk that city politicians, as they have done in the past, will turn their backs on the very people who lay their lives on the line every day," Steiger said.
He also defended the status quo, praising state government control.
"State control makes us a much more efficient and effective police department," Steiger said.
James Gieseke, president of the St. Louis Police Officer Association, clarified the argument against giving the city control.
"The current system, however it was born, has been amended and corrected over the years to be what it is now for the governance of the St. Louis Police Department," he said. "It works. Sometimes it stumbles, sometimes it falls, but it works and we make things happen. There can be more cooperation. We don't need to change Chapter 84 to make that cooperation happen."
Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said legislators and witnesses would need to consider which parts of the bill would have to be modified to give it a chance of passing. These changes are expected to be discussed as early as next week when the committee votes on the bill. A similar bill failed last March by a margin of 86-63.