It’s happening in Jackson, Mississippi, where state officials have a plan to stand up a new city police force that they would manage. And it’s happening in St. Louis, Missouri, where an outstanding young Black mayor – Tishaura Jones – is facing police unions and state legislators who want to wrest control of the police department from her. A state bill in the works would remove the city police force from city control and – you guessed it – put it under the control of a whiter, more conservative state government.
Full disclosure: I know Mayor Jones well, and I know she has been a reformer and a dedicated public servant her entire life. I know she is committed to improving policing and public safety in her city. Last year, her administration led a study that recommended numerous improvements including ending pretextual traffic stops and increasing unarmed responses. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the police unions and right-wing politicians are rebelling now. But what they are suggesting is not just an affront to Mayor Jones; life in politics is full of affronts. It is in fact deeply undemocratic, and indicative of profound problems.
Police forces are supposed to work for the people in the communities they serve. In this instance, those people elected Mayor Jones. To reject her leadership is to reject the judgment of the voters who chose it. Those voters chose a leader who ran on a progressive, reform platform: one that included decarceration, emphasizing unarmed responses to 911 calls, and working to better integrate police into the community – including incentives for them to actually live there.
This last item is critical, because when officers do not live in the communities they serve, they become more like an occupying army. Often, racial disparities are a telltale sign of the mismatch. In St. Louis, as in many other large cities, the police force is far whiter than the city neighborhoods themselves.
And now the unions want out from under city control, and the bill that would accomplish that, Senate Bill 78, includes other things the unions want, too: substantial pay raises and additional positions. I get that. A lot of working families depend on police officer salaries; and in fact, a union representing Black officers in the city has come out in support of SB 78.
But returning to a Civil-War era system of state control over the city police – which is what this bill would do – is not the answer. That antiquated system was already rejected by voters statewide in 2012.
The bigger question is whether this type of reactionary effort will spread. As a former elected official and as head of the nonprofit organization I now lead, I have studied and worked on this issue for many years – and I can tell you that local officials and residents know what they want and need. Community buy-in is essential to any successful effort to improve public safety, whether we want to fight crime or reduce the risk of violent encounters between residents and police. It makes no sense to move control of police to a higher level of government. It’s antithetical to what we know about the best way to manage public safety, which is to make it as local as possible. But now the threat exists, and can be dangled over the heads of local officials who want to enact progressive change.
That would be tragic, because there is so much we can do to improve public safety at the local level and to improve and save lives. The people who voted for Tishaura Jones know that; they deserve to reap the benefits of the reform they voted for.