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Learning from St. Louis: How local control of KCPD could make a difference

Posted at 9:35 PM, Jul 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-27 00:13:48-04

ST. LOUIS — The fight over funding for the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department isn't just about money – it's about control.

A Board of Police Commissioners, including KCMO Mayor Quinton Lucas, currently oversees the police department. The governor appoints the remaining four members.

The system, though, is an anomaly. Police departments throughout the rest of the state are overseen by their respective city.

Still, one city has been where Kansas City is today – St. Louis.

KSHB 41 News went to St. Louis to find out why the city switched to local control of its police department, and to see how the move has effected crime and accountability.

For Kansas City to gain local control of its police department, there are two avenues – One requires the Missouri General Assembly to change the law. The other would be through a statewide ballot initiative, which is what St. Louis did in 2012.

Daniel Isom, who was chief of police for the the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department at the time, said he was in favor of the move.

"Ninety-nine percent of the country has control of its police department," Isom said, "and it always had been an impediment to the city moving forward."

Isom, now the city's public safety director, said having SLMPD under local control makes his job easier when it comes to coordinating between police and other parts of city government. It also has enhanced accountability.

"When you have local control, there is more input that the community will have and an assessment of whether that relationship is going well or not," Isom said.

It's a relationship St. Louis City leaders still are focused on today.

Meanwhile, despite just being sworn in within the past few months, Mayor Tishaura Jones already has passed a couple of initiatives tackling public safety and police accountability – something her aids said would’ve been much more difficult if they hadn’t had local control over the police department.

One of those ordinances affects how law enforcement officials are investigated when accused of wrongdoing. An aid for the mayor said that previously police went before a three-person panel made up solely of fellow officers.

"That rule was removed so police officers are held to the same standards as all other civil service employees," Nick Dunner, the mayor's public information officer, said.

The other ordinance has given more power to a civilian oversight board, including ensuring that any time someone files a complaint involving police, there's a form that the civilian board and police department both receive.

"Previously, that form was not required," Dunne said. "So, if someone called internal affairs to complain, they used an internal form that never made it to civilian oversight."

While the Mayor's Office and Isom said they felt the move eight years ago was positive, not everyone agreed.

Jay Schroeder, president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, and a member of the department for the past 15 years, was opposed to the change.

"I believe you couldn’t have found any police officer that thought it was going to be a good idea," he said, recalling the sentiment among fellow officers when the city assumed control of the police department.

Schroeder also said he believes the move brought politics into policing, which has impacted their budget.

"The budget has always increased, but it hasn’t ever really... it’s not catching up," he said. "We are still one of the most underpaid police departments in the state and in the area."

Schroeder said he believes that's leading to fewer officers on the street, which contributes to a rise in crime.

STLMPD data from three years before St. Louis switched to local control, and three years after, show that from 2009-11, the city reported, on average, 133 homicides per year and 57,099 total crimes per year. Meanwhile, from 2017-19, the city reported 195 homicides per year, on average, and and average of 46,982 total crimes per year.

The data show that with the switch to local control, overall crime decreased, but homicides increased.

With those numbers in mind, Schroeder said Kansas City should keep its police department funded "and keep state control."

"I think it would be the worst thing that could happen to Kansas City if you lose control of your police department," Schroeder said.

Isom, the city's former police chief, had a different take on the rise in crime, calling it a national trend, not local to St. Louis.

He also said that at a time when tensions between police and portions of the public are strained, the move to bring the department under the city's control could help bridge that divide.

"We certainly have a long way go in terms of police community relations especially in communities of color," Isom said. "But [what] I will say is that if those communities of color have more say-so in the direction of the police department, we have a better chance of increasing and making that relationship better."