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Lawmakers back in Jefferson City to tackle violent crime amid cries for police reform

  

Flanked by a bevy of state public safety officials and law enforcement in the Capitol rotunda earlier this month, Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff, summoned legislators back to Jefferson City to address what he called an imminent problem exasperating Missouri: violent crime. 

And on Monday, the lawmakers returned. 

Parson’s call for a special session came on the heels of Kansas City announcing a 35 percent increase in homicides in 2020 from the previous year as more than 100 people have been killed. St. Louis, too, has reported nearly 140 homicides as of July 23. (In the entirety of 2019, 194 people were murdered in the city of St. Louis.) 

But against the backdrop of the special session is a national awakening about police brutality and race relations in the country. 

It’s only been two months since George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man, was killed while in police custody, setting off massive protests across the country, including in Missouri. And those protests have included both violence and destruction — sometimes at the hands of law enforcement and other times by those demonstrating — underscoring the cries for change on any side. 

It’s clear Missouri is on a precipice, and the cacophonous calls to address violent crime and police brutality is sure to come to a head during the special session. 

What’s on deck 

GOP Sen. Doug Libla is carrying the legislation with a hearing scheduled for his Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety Committee Tuesday afternoon.

The agenda for the special session includes six facets: residency requirements for St. Louis police officers, certification to try juveniles as adults, witness statement admissibility, creation of a witness protection fund, modification of the offense of endangering a child, and an increased penalty for illegally transferring a firearm to a minor. 

GOP Sen. Doug Libla is carrying the legislation with a hearing scheduled for his Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Safety Committee Tuesday afternoon. 

“We’re talking about the violent crime that’s becoming prevalent not only in St. Louis and Kansas City but other areas too,” Libla said, noting he had been working with the Governor’s Office on the exact language they want to push through. 

Although session convened on July 27, it’s expected to spill past the Aug. 4 primary elections — not to really liven until mid-August. A bevy of other bills was introduced on Monday — including a concurrent jurisdiction bill giving the attorney general power to prosecute homicides in St. Louis — but aren’t expected to be referred to a committee.  

Parson spent the week leading up to the legislative return touring Missouri and meeting with local officials to discuss what’s needed in their communities. On Thursday, his visit to Columbia was met with a few dozen protestors who demanded the governor “defund the police” or hold law enforcement accountable. 

“As governor and a former law enforcement officer for more than 22 years, protecting our citizens and upholding the laws of our state are of utmost importance to my administration,” the Republican governor has said. “We know we have a serious problem with violent crime here in Missouri that must be addressed. Violent crime has been a problem in our state long before COVID-19, and we have seen it escalate even more in recent weeks, specifically in our big cities.” 

Parson said he’s been in contact with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and is working with them to secure “more resources” for the state. He said the pair has been concerned about violent crime in Missouri “for weeks.”

‘Big missed opportunity’ 

Parson’s call for a special session was immediately derided by many of the state’s Democratic lawmakers — especially from those who had implored him to convene legislators in Jefferson City to tackle a number of police reform measures, from banning chokeholds to ensuring accountability. 

In a recent letter to the governor, state Rep. LaKeySha Bosley said: “We have the privilege and responsibility of safeguarding the lives of Missourians and fostering an environment for them to reach their full potential.” 

“With a special session on violent crime on the horizon, we must make sure the conversation is broad and starts with improving interactions between law enforcement officers and the community,” Bosley said. “I implore you to make it a priority that all Missourians feel safe when they encounter the police.” 

And the call to expand the scope of the session has been bipartisan. In a lengthy Twitter thread, state Rep. Shamed Dogan, the Republican chairman of the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, said legislators should be able to address both violent crime and police misconduct.

“Holding a special session regarding crime and not even attempting to reach a consensus on the urgent need for police reform would be a big missed opportunity,” he said. “I urge the governor to expand his call for a special session to include the issue of police reform so that we can help our brave men and women in law enforcement and hold accountable those who fail to protect and serve.”