JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday formally called Missouri lawmakers back to the Capitol, outlining plans for a special session on violent crime later this month.
But, unlike other states that have moved to ban chokeholds and limit the use of excessive force by police in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Republican governor wants to give police more tools to grapple with violence that is flaring in the state’s urban areas.
“If there was ever a time to stand up for law enforcement, now is the time. We must support them and give them the respect they deserve,” Parson said.
The announcement came a day after four people were found dead in the Walnut Park area of St. Louis. Prior to those bodies being found, the city had recorded at least 22 homicides so far in July; at the same time in July 2019, it had recorded seven.
June also was an alarming month for homicides in St. Louis, with an average of about one killing a day.
“No one, no matter where they are from, wants to see children shot in the streets. That’s not who we are in this state,” the governor said.
The special session, which is slated to begin July 27, will include legislation that would repeal St. Louis’ residency rule for police officers, which Mayor Lyda Krewson says has made it hard to recruit and retain police.
Police Chief John Hayden, who joined other police chiefs and county sheriffs at the governor’s announcement, said repealing the residency rule would help rebuild the force, which is down by more than 120 officers.
“Our officers are emotionally, spiritually and physically drained. Over the past six weeks, we’ve had 60-odd homicides. We’ve had continuous protests. Now more than ever I need more policemen,” Hayden said.
In a Facebook Live briefing, Krewson said she welcomed the special session, citing the need to help the city recruit and retain police officers and address rising crime.
Krewson said as of Wednesday morning the city had recorded 130 homicides year-to-date compared with 99 in the year-earlier period.
“The violence is really exceptional, and off the charts,” Krewson said.
The governor also wants a new law creating a witness protection program, which could help police solve more crimes by allowing witnesses to come forward without fear of reprisal from gangs.
“People don’t want to come forward because they are scared,” Parson said.
The package would include a new law requiring courts to determine if a juvenile should be tried as an adult for the offense of unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action. Parson also wants to ease rules on what witness statements are admissible in court.
The governor is proposing to modify the offense of endangering the welfare of a child for a person who encourages a child to engage in any weapons offense. He also wants to increase the penalty for a person who sells a firearm to anyone under age 18 without the consent of a parent.
The menu of options being pushed by the GOP stands in contrast to what Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus are seeking when it comes to police reforms.
The caucus is seeking changes addressing use of force by police against minorities.
Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, sent Parson a letter last week calling for a law requiring police to carry an occupational license.
“This would ensure that officers, throughout Missouri, meet a minimum and uniform training standard before being allowed to police our streets and communities,” Williams wrote.
“I also believe now is the time for a statewide ban on the use of chokeholds. George Floyd would still be alive today if these tactics were banned in Minnesota,” he added.
Williams, who is serving his first term representing parts of St. Louis and St. Louis County, is the first Black male to serve in the Senate in two decades.
“It’s personal to me. I have a direct connection to the experience of systemic racism,” Williams said.
In an interview, Williams said his proposals would rebuild trust between the Black community and police.
“If we don’t take a serious look at it, I think it’s going to continue to enhance crime in the community,” Williams said.
Parson said those kinds of issues are better suited for the regular session that begins in January.
“Those issues will come. Those conversations will take place,” Parson said.
That drew a rebuke from Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, who said the governor is ignoring the need for police reforms.
“For the governor to suggest there’s not enough time to revolutionize our laws to address violent crimes against black people at the hands of rogue law enforcement is insulting and demoralizing to the African American community in this state,” Bosley said. “If we want to be tough on crime, let us be tough on all crime, including those committed by men and women who swear an oath to protect and serve.”
Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, the only Black Republican in the Legislature, similarly said Parson’s agenda was too narrow, noting a law Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed last month after the state Legislature moved expeditiously to approve it, the Des Moines Register reported.
The measure outlaws most police chokeholds, gives the attorney general authority to investigate officer-involved deaths, and bars officers with previous felonies, or who have faced termination connected to misconduct, from being hired in the state, the Register reported.
“Just as we can walk and chew gum at the same time, we can also support law enforcement and oppose police misconduct at the same time,” Dogan said on Twitter. “Holding a special session regarding crime and not even attempting to reach a consensus on the urgent need for police reform would be a big missed opportunity.”
The push by Parson for quick action on crime comes as he heads into the fall election unable to tout his main campaign theme, which had been a pre-pandemic robust state economy.
The call for nearly 200 lawmakers to return to the Capitol also comes as coronavirus cases have spiked across the state in recent days. On Wednesday, officials said two employees of the House tested positive for COVID-19 and are self-quarantining at home and not working in the Capitol.