Why you should care about who controls the St. Louis Police Department

Monday, February 14, 2011

At first blush, I can see why most Cape Girardeau area residents would shrug their shoulders and say "Who cares?" about two bills in the state legislature: Senate Bill 23 and House Bill 71. The bills would return state control of the St. Louis Police Department to St. Louis citizens and their representatives.

That's right, St. Louis is one of just two police departments in the country (Kansas City is the other) that is funded by local citizens, but has been run by the Board of Police Commissioners since 1861. Four of the five members of the board are appointed by the governor. The city is prohibited by state law from creating or operating its own police department.

So why should Cape Girardeau citizens care, other than for reasons of basic fairness? Because this arrangement is costing them and all state taxpayers $1 million every year, with a potential cost that could go far higher. And why? Because state courts have determined that the St. Louis Police Department is, in effect, a state agency.

That's why the state sets aside $1 million a year in the State Legal Expense Fund for lawsuits arising out of the St. Louis Police Department. That could be the tip of the iceberg. What would happen if St. Louis becomes insolvent or defaults on its debt payments and needs a bailout? It's likely that state taxpayers would have to fork over $80 million to $100 million a year to operate the department. In fact, the city says it will ask the state next year to pay at least $80 million a year to run the department, if the state continues to control it.

It makes no sense to treat the St. Louis Police Department any differently than Cape Girardeau's, St. Joseph's or Springfield's. Given that it could get expensive for state taxpayers, it makes even less sense.

St. Louis citizens want local control of the police department; 69 percent of them endorsed that concept in a non-binding referendum last November. But they can't do it alone. They lost control of the police department during the Civil War when a secessionist governor and legislature took over the department as a means to control the northern-leaning city.

It's time to bury this silly, potentially costly, relic of the past. Senate Bill 23 and House Bill 71 might address control of the St. Louis Police Department, but every Missourian stands to benefit if one of them passes.

Nancy Rice is the spokeswoman for A Safer Missouri in St. Louis, Mo.

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