JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The leader of the Missouri Senate said Tuesday that he plans to push forward with legislation ending 150 years of state oversight of the St. Louis police department, after a similar bill cleared the House.
The House passed legislation giving St. Louis control over its police force by a 109-46 vote Tuesday, barely achieving the two-thirds threshold necessary to override gubernatorial vetoes. Gov. Jay Nixon has not directly threatened a veto, but he has expressed concern about proposals to eliminate the police department's current governing board, which consists of four gubernatorial appointees and the St. Louis mayor.
The House's action now sends the legislation to the Senate, where opponents have the ability to stall measures through filibusters. A similar Senate version of the legislation already is pending in a committee.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said at least a half-dozen senators are opposed to granting St. Louis control over its police department. But "I'm planning on pressing forward with the measure," said Mayer, R-Dexter.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay described House passage of the legislation as a "historic vote" and "a huge step for the people of St. Louis." But "we certainly know it's going to be a challenge" in the Senate, Slay added.
Legislation proposing to end state oversight of the St. Louis police department has stalled in previous years, partly because of opposition from St. Louis police officers who fear greater interference in their duties from local elected officials, if those officials have direct control over the agency.
"The most effective law enforcement agencies are those that are apolitical, or as close to apolitical as possible," said Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, who served on the St. Louis police force from 1971 to 1980 before working for 21 years as a special agent with the FBI.
Among those watching the House debate Tuesday were numerous St. Louis police officers in civilian clothes.
Slay said the current police board is accountable to virtually no one, and that transferring control to the city of St. Louis would make the police department more accountable to the people it protects.
"Government works best when it is closest to the people," Slay said.
Last year, the House defeated legislation granting St. Louis control of its police department. But this year's version has gained momentum because of a convergence of factors.
The House has 78 new members because of term limits, retirements and election defeats. The legislation also has the support of new House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, who recounted during House debate Tuesday how Slay had personally visited him to make his case for the legislation. Tilley describes the bill as the epitome of local control, which he characterizes as the "fundamental principle" of the Republican Party.
More than two-thirds of St. Louis voters backed a nonbinding resolution last fall urging local control of the police department. And if the bill doesn't pass the Legislature this year, wealthy businessman and political activist Rex Sinquefield is financing an initiative that could put the measure on the 2012 statewide ballot.
Also new this year is the argument from supporters that the state could incur millions of dollars of costs by continuing its oversight of the St. Louis police department. The state already pays about $1 million annually in legal defenses involving St. Louis police. Slay has said the city might also invoke a 1982 Missouri Supreme Court decision that said the state-appointed police board cannot require the city to spend more on its police department than it did during the 1980-1981 fiscal year. If that ruling were strictly followed, Slay has said the city could seek nearly $100 million annually from the state to help pay for its police force.
St. Louis police bills are HB71 and SB23.
St. Louis Police Board: http://www.slmpd.org
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)