November 20, 2012Missouri voters have returned control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) to city leaders with the overwhelming passage of Prop A. The transition, however, won't happen overnight.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen must first pass an ordinance accepting the responsibility, and then the city will form a five-member transition committee to help coordinate the shift, which will coincide with the end of this fiscal year. The city will take control of the police force on July 1.
City leaders are hoping and planning for a smooth transition.
"As the state hands off control to the city, we want to make sure nothing falls through the cracks," said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a longtime supporter of the proposition. "It's largely an administrative function. We need to focus on making sure we have a smooth transition so police officers out defending our neighborhoods can continue to do so and not worry about any administrative shortcomings."
Rainford said current police department employees have nothing to worry about, as the new law keeps insurance and pension benefits intact and protects their jobs – as long as they're not failing to do them.
"All current employees, whether officer or civilian, are staying on," he said. "You can only lose your job for cause."
Rainford said the passage of Prop A, which voters approved by 64 percent at the polls on Nov. 6, does away with an outdated system. Ever since the Civil War, the police department has been run by a state board made up of the city mayor and four members appointed by the governor, which has been problematic when the police chief and the mayor do not see eye to eye, Rainford said.
"While Mayor Slay has gotten along with all the chiefs during his tenure, previous mayors have feuded with their chiefs, and that's a disaster when your mayor and police chief aren't on the same page," he said, noting the mayor was one of the chief's bosses under the state-controlled set up.
Rainford said having local control of the police department, which will become a division of the Department of Public Safety, will result in a safer city.
"Above all else, it will make our neighborhoods safer and reduce crime," he said. "In the past, some police boards and chiefs believed it was not the police department's job to make neighborhoods safer, but only to respond once a crime is committed. But Mayor Slay strongly believes the police department is the first line of defense against criminals and thugs – not just responding to crimes after they occur – and that is critical to public safety. We'll be more effective at crime fighting because now we have local control."
Public Safety Director Eddie Roth agrees.
"It opens up many avenues for improved police service, fire service and emergency medical service just by having everybody pulling on the same oar in a coordinated way," he said. "It's about having a dynamic, integrated department of public safety in the city of St. Louis for the first time in 150 years where we can think about providing services to all the divisions – police, fire, EMS, corrections – and have all of these entities functioning in an integrated way."
Roth said in the months ahead the city will be studying police, fire and EMS to see how they can be integrated to improve services and efficiency.
"That will help us think about this integrated department of public safety and what it looks like," he said. "The challenge between now and July 1 is to organize this department in a way that makes it even more dynamic and provides better service and makes the city of St. Louis an even safer place."
Slay is grateful control of the police department will now lie with local leaders.
"We have much to celebrate," the mayor said in a thank you message to voters after the election. "Missouri voters have voted to end a vestige of the Civil War and return control of the St. Louis Police Department to the people of St. Louis where it belongs. Accountability should be here with the people in St. Louis who pay the bills, rather than with the people in Jefferson City who don't pay the bills. With this result, all of us in our city can begin to enjoy the same rights as virtually every other person in America. This is something cities all over America have."
Kansas City is now the only city in the country that does not have local control of its police force.
"Some folks act like local control is this alien thing, but we were one of only two cities left that didn't have it," he said. "Local control is normal and it's going to be a big improvement."
Citizens Against Prop A
Although the measure passed, Citizens Against Prop A take issue with parts of it.
The coalition composed of several organizations throughout the state opposes Prop A because of concerns that it will limit options for effective civilian review, close certain police records and give the mayor too much power over the police department – all of which proponents say will not happen.
"As much as we support local control, there is language in the measure that undercuts citizen input and the transparency of records," said John Chasnoff, spokesman for Citizens Against Prop A and program director at ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "We really believe in citizen input and transparency, so we felt it violated what we stood for. We urge the proponents of Prop A to work with us to fix the current language so that we can proceed knowing that citizen input and oversight are possible."
Although police officers have been promised nothing will happen to their pensions, Chasnoff said there's still some doubt.
"The police officers still have a lot of concerns about whether their pensions are really secure," he said. "We will therefore work to explore ways to reassure officers that their pensions are maintained and that all voices will be heard in future collective bargaining."