JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House approved legislation Thursday to give St. Louis control over its Police Department and end state oversight that began during the Civil War-era.
Police officers favor state oversight, arguing that it insulates their agency from city politics, but St. Louis officials contend municipal government should have power over its police force like most cities.
The Republican-controlled House voted 123-34 to give the bill first-round approval, but it needs another vote before moving to the Senate. House Speaker Steven Tilley — who has supported the effort in past years — called the approval "historic" and "long overdue."
Control of the St. Louis Police Department has percolated for several years. Currently, the St. Louis mayor and a four other people appointed by the governor serve on a state board that oversees the department. The board was established in 1861.
St. Louis officials have argued that it would be more effective for the city to have authority over the department, saying problems have surfaced when city leaders and members of the state board have not gotten along. City officials also have warned that if the state board remains in place, the city could seek nearly $100 million from state government for the department's budget.
Police officers, however, contend the department could be less effective under local control. The St. Louis Police Officers Association also is concerned that losing the state board could lead to reduced pensions and other benefits for officers.
Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, sponsor of the bill, said the measure was about giving St. Louis control over its police department.
"I have said time and time again that if the police unions spent as much time fighting crime as it does fighting my bill, the city of St. Louis wouldn't be the most dangerous city in the United States," said Nasheed, D-St. Louis.
St. Louis was ranked as the nation's most dangerous city for 2009 in a report released in November by CQ Press, though some criminologists have said the annual study's methodology is unfair.
The Kansas City Police Department also is overseen by a state board, but officials there are not seeking a change.
Gov. Jay Nixon has said he was concerned that if the state board were to be eliminated, local officials could get involved in the daily operations of St. Louis police.
"I kind of err on the side of change when you need to change, when it comes to governance things," Nixon told members of The Associated Press and Missouri Press Association last week. "And I'm not saying I couldn't see a way to do it, but I haven't yet been convinced as to what you get for it. How does law enforcement improve?"
Last year, the House voted 86-63 to reject the legislation.
House leaders told reporters the budget issue likely helped to win support this year by persuading some lawmakers that concerns about eliminating the board were not worth the risk of having state coffers be tapped.
The House added a provision to the legislation to bar St. Louis police officers from lobbying or testifying before legislative committees about the department's stance on issues. Officers would be allowed to testify as individuals but could not wear their uniforms or state their rank or title within the department. Supporters of the restrictions said they were concerned about some St. Louis officials' position on firearm policies.
Despite the House approval of the legislation, Missouri voters ultimately could get the final say. An initiative petition for the 2012 ballot was proposed last month that would give local officials in both Kansas City and St. Louis control over the cities' police departments.