JEFFERSON CITY - A week after a member of the state-run St. Louis police commission resigned following a scandal, a House committee approved a bill which would eliminate that same board and give the city autonomous control over its police department for the first time since the Civil War.
Currently, the police forces of St. Louis and Kansas City are each overseen by a board of commissioners, comprised of Mayor Francis Slay and five members appointed by the governor; this bill, which has divided both parties, would only apply to St. Louis. The bill, which was passed with five votes in favor and three against, would eliminate the board and give control to a commissioner appointed by the mayor.
The bill's sponsor and chief co-sponsor both said it was unfair that all jurisdictions other than the city's two largest have full local control of their police departments. Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis City, said St. Louis wants local control and it is often ignored by the General Assembly's leaders, many of whom reside in rural areas.
"The people of this city want local control, and they've been fighting for it for some time now," said Nasheed, who introduced the bill. "The people of St. Louis are going to come out in droves for this."
Unlike most bills that come up for votes, the outcome of this was not certain before the roll call. The bill had both bi-partisan support and opposition; four Democrats and one Republican on the committee voted in favor, with one Democrat and two Republicans voting no and another, Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, not voting for or against.
Flook had said earlier on Monday that he wasn't willing to stop the legislation from getting out of committee, but he feared putting the police department in control of "some corrupt entity." Rep. Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, who co-sponsored the legislation, said the recent resignation of board member Vincent Bommarito is an example that the system is already broken.
"What that shows is how corrupt the current situation is," Tilley said of Bommarito's resignation. "How could it get worse?"
Bommarito, 79, submitted his resignation a week after he was accused of using his influence on Feb. 13 to free, without filing charges, a 46-year-old nephew who had been arrested for drunk driving.
Rep. Kate Meiners of Kansas City was the lone Democrat who voted against the bill, but a former committee member appeared at the proceedings to say she would also have opposed it. Rep. Vicki Englund, D-Mehlville, who was on the committee until last week, told reporters she would have voted no but Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, had removed her from the committee.
"I think the vote definitely would have been different had I been a member of the committee," Englund said.
Nasheed and Tilley both said Englund asked Richard to be removed from the committee weeks earlier. Englund was unavailable to refute that comment, but she said earlier that many members of her South St. Louis County district, which she said includes a large number of city officers, had called in opposing the bill.
Reached on his cell phone Monday night, Richard declined to say whether he removed Englund from the committee, saying "you would have to ask them about that." Englund's replacement, Hope Whitehead, D-St. Louis, voted in favor of the bill.
Rep. Jeff Roorda of Barnhart, another Democrat not on the committee who opposed the bill, came to propose an amendment but was ruled out of order by chairman Ted Hoskins, D-Berkeley. The amendment would have required collective bargaining between the police union and the mayor before control could be ceded from the state, but Roorda was barred from introducing it because he was not a committee member.
Roorda, a former police chief of Kimmswick, said the bill leaves too many unknowns for the police officers and leaves them at the mercy of city hall. He said the bill alienates both Democratic lawmakers who support unions and Republicans wary of giving control to a city whose political system they don't trust.
"I think this is a bill that can't pass," Roorda said. "We had a chance to make a bill that would have brought both parties together, and instead we got a bill that will tear them apart."
While Nasheed said St. Louis residents support the bill, the association that represents the police officers doesn't. Joe Steiger, its vice president, said the bill would put police officers at the mercy of city hall and Slay, a Democrat who supports ending state control.
Steiger said 150 police officers rallied at the capitol last week against the bill and will return Tuesday to fight against similar legislation from Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, which will be heard in a Senate committee.
"I'm furious with what happened today," Steiger said. "There is a lot of fight left."
Nasheed said the police officers union inherently distrusts city hall and they would never support the bill. She said she has fought in the interest of the unions before and a lot of the opposition comes from misinformation.
She said officers had complained to her that the bill would require officers to reside in St. Louis City or their pension fund would be used to balance the city's budget.
"They always think there's a spook behind the door," Nasheed said of the police officers' union. "They hear all these falsehoods, and it scares them. We've just got to get people educated on how this bill works."
Nasheed indicated that angry Democrats in the city might stay at home or vote against leaders who oppose local control.
"If there are Democrats who fight on this, there will be implications in the next couple of elections," she said. "This isn't about party. It's about giving the city police the same powers that nearly every other jurisdiction in the state has."