St. Louis leaders aren’t the only ones reassessing the wisdom of downsizing the city police department to mollify a loud but not necessarily representative group of far-left activists. Rising violent crime is plaguing cities across the country, and a growing number of Democratic mayors have realized that defunding the police is the opposite of what’s needed to retake control of the streets.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones scheduled an online “community listening session” for late Tuesday afternoon, fulfilling her promise to let citizens have input into the person she chooses to replace John Hayden, who will retire as police chief in February. The new chief will inherit a mountain of challenges that include understaffing, an increase in violent crime, and the growing appearance of lawlessness characterized by mass drag-racing events and downtown motorcycle rallies that openly defy police attempts to impose order. A feckless approach to prosecutions by Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner contributes to a sense of declining morale among rank-and-file officers.
The mayor’s listening sessions with citizens no doubt will include the voices of progressive activists demanding follow-through on her alignment with the defund-the-police movement. While hearing them out, it’s important that she insist on empirical and statistical evidence from defund advocates rather than letting assumptions and assertions go unchallenged that reducing the police presence on the streets would somehow lead to improved public safety.
Many cities that experimented with police defunding are now realizing what a bad idea it was. After initially cutting $92 million from the New York City police department to defund a new precinct, Mayor Bill DeBlasio this year bumped up the department’s funding by $200 million. Los Angeles is boosting officer pay. In Dallas, Mayor Eric Johnson and the city council have done an about-face and not only reversed funding cuts but approved a plan to hire 250 additional officers.
“It’s hard to have a serious conversation with folks about cutting a police department’s budget when crime is up,” Philadelphia’s former mayor, Democrat Michael Nutter, told The Wall Street Journal.
Some defund activists in St. Louis point to a recent decline in homicides to pre-pandemic levels as a sign that deemphasis on aggressive policing is having beneficial effects. Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom suggested in August, however, that the reduction might be the result of boosting policing during times when homicides most often occur — on weekends and at night.
That said, activists are correct to question traditional policing methods and urge experimentation with alternative ways to de-escalate tense situations, such as mental health crises, that too often yield tragic results when police respond with a guns-drawn standoff. That’s a public conversation Jones should encourage. But if she lets these community engagement sessions devolve into anti-police tirades, the job of replacing Hayden with a highly qualified, enthusiastic leader can only be made that much harder.