After twelve hours of floor work Thursday, the Missouri Senate has given preliminary approval to a special session bill intended to crackdown on violent crime. Gov. Mike Parson called lawmakers back in to pass a package that would create a witness protection fund and toughen the penalty for anyone who sells or gives a gun to a juvenile.
The legislation was met with opposition from a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. They were outside the Capitol, but eventually moved indoors to the upper gallery of the Senate chamber. During debate, protesters interrupted by chanting “Criminal justice reform, not rhetoric.” Senators took a brief break while protesters were shooed out of the chamber.
Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, says his bill would help to clean up Missouri communities, their economies and their education system.
“Businesses locate all over the state and as you may know, our rural crime has really went up. As a matter fact, we’re ranked really high for rural crime across the United States,” he says. “People have a right to feel safe in their homes. They want their kids to be able to ride their bicycle down to the park and be able to play on the swings and stuff. And, it’s just not the way it is right now in some places.”
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, says three Missouri cities – St. Louis, Kansas City, and Springfield – rank within the top 25 most violent cities in America.
“We truly have a crime epidemic in Missouri,” he says. “Missouri, overall, has the third highest murder rate in the country. These are not things to be proud of. It gives our whole state a black eye. Don’t think when job creators from around the country are looking about whether to come to Missouri they don’t look at the fact that we have the third highest murder rate in the country, that our major cities are hotbeds of crime, that prosecutors in our major cities are not committed to prosecuting crime and protecting their citizens.”
The legislation would also scrap a requirement for St. Louis police officers to live within the city. Outgoing Senator Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, was one of the most vocal critics of the plan.
“We want people that look like us, that can relate to us and they are not afraid to approach those individuals who live in those neighborhoods,” says Nasheed.
She says the state has no business getting involved because St. Louis voters will be asked in November whether to toss out the requirement.
“So all of my good friends in here who always emphasize that local control is important, especially when it comes to farmers. But how about letting us control our home,” asks Nasheed. “I wouldn’t have come into your district and filed legislation that impacts the quality of life for people that you represent. Ask me if I need help and then offer it to me. Don’t just tell me what you think is best for my district. You ain’t never lived there. You don’t have to walk those streets.”
She goes on to say St. Louis has a police retention problem – not a police residency problem.
Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, says letting officers live outside of the city could help with recruiting.
“If we’re trying to figure out a way in areas where there is higher crime rates, to get more boots on the streets, I just want those boots to be qualified,” says Rowden. “I just want them to be qualified. I want them to be willing, go through training and feel that there’s some level of calling, an obligation to serve their communities in that way. If they’re from the city of St. Louis or they’re from Columbia, fine. If they’re not, but they still have that calling and that desire to serve their community in that way, I think they should be able to do that.”
Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, calls the measure a “political ploy” heading into November’s general election. She says her city has been a “mismanagement of resources” with the majority being ruled by the minority. According to May, the police department makes up $178 million of the city’s budget.
“When you’re putting all the resources in what you call the affluent portions and you want to pay more attention to the 1% and ignore what is going on in the rest of the city, then you’re going to have issues like this,” says May. “But we have to talk about violent crime from a social economic purview because that is totally the issue here.”
St. Louis lacks about 130 officers from its authorized strength.
A provision with some of the most contention is one that would expand state statute and let judges decide whether individuals 14 to 18 years old should be prosecuted as adults for certain weapons crimes.
“Did you know that 85% to 87% of African-American youth are certified as adults opposed to any other demographic,” asks May. “Why is that? You cannot tell me that there’s no bias going on in the judicial system. We have to fix that first.”
She points to a U.S. Department of Justice report about the juvenile justice system in St. Louis County.
“They did a six-year study that showed that juveniles ages 12, 13, 14, and 15 were denied their civil rights solely based on racism. But no one wants to deal with the underlying causes of crime,” says May. “They want to do this tough on crime approach and continue to destroy families by locking up people for a long time instead of dealing with the child. Where were you at when he was seven or eight – when his community was tumbling down?”
Onder says St. Louis prosecutor Kim Gardner’s conviction rate is 20% and calls her “incompetent”, triggering Nasheed to fire back.
“I am concerned about the blood in the streets, many of whom are your constituents,” says Onder.
“The blood in the streets,” asks Nasheed.
“If we cannot get a handle on the crime problem in the city of St. Louis,” says Onder.
“The blood in the streets? The blood in the streets is a direct correlation to you all being soft on guns,” says Nasheed.
“Black males and black females, even children as young as four years old, are dying in the streets of the city of St. Louis,” says Onder.
“When have you guys ever cared,” asks Nasheed. “When have you ever cared?”
“And we have a prosecutor who is willfully neglectful in performing her duty,” says Onder.
“But when have you ever cared,” asks Nasheed.
Onder listed several names of kids killed this year in St. Louis.
“So did Kim kill them,” asks Nasheed. “Did Kim kill them? I’m asking you, did she pick up a gun? So it’s Kim’s fault and not your fault because you all allow all type of guns in the inner city based on the weak policies where anyone can have access to guns. Who are you blaming? You should be blaming yourself, not Kim.”
“Senator, there were guns in the city of St. Louis five years ago. There are guns today,” says Onder. “Something has changed. Gun crime, all crime has skyrocketed. Ms. Gardner is charging the brutal crime of carjacking as stealing as if someone had stolen a pack of gum.”
Nasheed accused Onder of rallying his base.
Gardner has been criticized for her handling of the former Governor Eric Greitens court case involving a graphic photo of his ex-mistress that was allegedly taken without the woman’s permission and used to blackmail her to keep quiet about their affair. Gardner has also come under recent fire for charging a St. Louis couple with felonies for flashing guns at protesters walking along their private street.
The Senate is expected to give final approval to Senate Bill 1 on Friday. Then, the measure heads over to the House of Representatives for consideration.
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