That the city of St. Louis should control its own police department never should have been an issue. But for 151 years — ever since Confederate sympathizers in Jefferson City seized control over fears that pro-Union forces in St. Louis would control an arsenal of weapons — the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has been a creature of state government.
City taxpayers pay the department's bills, which account for a third of all city tax revenue. But the governor appoints four of the five members of the Board of Police Commissioners. The city's mayor is the fifth, ex-officio member, the only one directly accountable to city voters.
The city is now closer than it's ever been to regaining control of the department. Proposition A on the Nov. 6 ballot would right a wrong born of support for slavery. That city residents must hope for help from voters who live elsewhere in Missouri illustrates the absurdity of the current system.
Nobody particularly likes this system, except for perhaps the police officers themselves. The governor's appointees on the Police Board have tended to let the department's command staff run the department without much oversight. Rank-and-file police officers have enjoyed great success in lobbying state legislators on issues including pensions and promotions. Lawmakers from far-away towns thus tell the city how it should spend its tax dollars.
You hear patronizing talk — most recently from Republicans in St. Louis County — about how local control would inject Democratic politics into the department's operations. City politicians could be no worse than the state politicians who dabble now; at least city politicians are accountable to the people who pay the department's bills.
You want politics? Consider that Proposition A only got on the ballot because of the influence that conservative mega-donor Rex Sinquefield has in Jefferson City. The measure had to be massaged to appease the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which now describes itself as “neutral” on the measure.
Proposition A leaves control of pensions and other benefits with the state. Ideally the city would control those, too, but leaving them with the state was the price for the officers' support and/or neutrality.
The city chapter of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri oppose the measure, concerned that it would close access to records of police misconduct. Such records already usually are closed. Under local control, changes might be possible. Under a state-appointed board that is captive to the department, changes are unlikely.
If Proposition A passes, the city could save as much as $3.5 million a year by consolidating some administrative positions and functions. Local control would take effect next July 1. The governance structure has yet to be finalized, but the city's Civil Service Board — whose three members are appointed by the mayor — would gain control over disciplinary matters.
Proposition A is not perfect, but after 151 years, it would be foolish to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Local control is right and it is fair. Vote Yes on Prop A.