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Missouri Case Study: Does State Control Of Local Police Cut Crime?

A decade after gaining local control of its police for the first time since the Civil War, St. Louis has more murders than ever before. Republican state lawmakers are again pressuring for a state takeover of the police force. The debate over policing power in St. Louis — a racially diverse, heavily Democratic city long vexed by violent crime — carries political and racial overtones like those that have roiled other cities and states this year. Data suggest neither state nor local control may make much difference when it comes to stemming homicides, the Associated Press reports. “Lots of things matter a whole lot more, like widespread social unrest, the economy crashing, that sort of thing,” said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

With violent crime troubling many large cities, Republicans nationwide have pushed a tough-on-crime agenda that would make it harder for the accused to get out of jail on bail and lock up people longer when convicted of certain offenses. A proposed state takeover of the St. Louis police department is being touted as a way to fight crime. Missouri provides a unique case study in the effectiveness of state or local control of police. For much of its history, police in Missouri’s two largest cities of St. Louis and Kansas City had been overseen by state boards appointed predominantly by the governor. That ended for St. Louis in 2013, after voters approved a statewide ballot measure to return police oversight to city officials. A mayor’s task force in Kansas City narrowly recommended continuing state control over its police. Since 2014, both cities have seen homicide surges. Kansas City’s homicide rate rose by an average yearly rate of 6.7%, topping 150 deaths each of the past four years. Homicide rates in St. Louis, long higher than in Kansas City, increased by an average annual rate of 8.2%, exceeding 190 deaths each of the past four years. Both cities also saw upticks in homicides in the early 1990s, when both had state control of their police. Despite the slightly larger increase in St. Louis, “there is no statistically significant difference between the change in homicide in St. Louis and the change in homicide in Kansas City since local control was restored in St. Louis,” Rosenfeld said.


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