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Roberts proposes police reforms in Missouri, from banning chokeholds to mandating accountability

Ban chokeholds. Prohibit placing weight or force on a person’s neck. Mandate police officers intervene and report excessive use of force. 

Those are just a few police reforms state Rep. Steve Roberts has proposed Missouri enact across the state, measures he said are needed as the country grapples with what happened to George Floyd. The black Minneapolis man was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, despite Floyd crying out that he could not breathe, late last month. The officer has since been charged with second-degree murder

“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” Roberts told The Missouri Times. “There are countless other examples, at least recorded examples, that we’ve heard of. And with this case, there’s video, but these things have happened before, and without video, you just don’t know about it.” 

The reforms Roberts, the Democratic chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, has proposed would need to be enacted legislatively, something that could not happen until next year. But Roberts is forging ahead during the interim, gathering information, and attempting to glean support from the Governor’s Office and leadership on the other side of the aisle. 

“This is not an issue that should be left to individual police departments and policy manuals,” Roberts said. “By statutorily banning this practice, we will clear up any ambiguity regarding the use of chokeholds.”

“It is my hope that the practice can be banned in our state and that we might never have to hear those awful words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ from someone in police custody again,” he said. 

Additionally, Roberts stressed the need for more accountability among police officers. He said the response to Floyd’s death — with many national and state police departments and organizations publicly condemning the involved officers’ actions — is one of the first collective acknowledgments of wrongdoing he could recall. 

“One of the reasons there’s a lot of distrust of police departments is that police rarely hold themselves accountable. A lot of times in these situations … they try to stick with the wrongdoer,” Roberts said. “Having a duty to intervene and a duty to report when you witness things that are wrong is something every police department should have.” 

Roberts has already met with Gov. Mike Parson as consistent protests against racism and police brutality have broken out across the nation — including in Missouri — but that initial meeting was in regards to supporting peaceful protests while separating those from looting or violence, he said. 

Roberts, along with House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, sent a letter to the governor Tuesday, imploring him to commit to supporting an overhaul of law enforcement training requirements that would not emphasize using force. The pair of Democrats also asked Parson to veto SB 600, an omnibus bill from Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer that would, among other things, change certain sentencing guidelines. 

A spokeswoman for Parson Tuesday morning said SB 600 “is still under review.”

“As a former sheriff, we believe that you are uniquely positioned to advocate for long-overdue reforms that are essential to rebuilding a trust and confidence in law enforcement that many Missourians no longer have,” the letter said. 

Until pre-filing begins for the upcoming legislative session, Roberts said he’s gathering information and looking at what has been proposed in other states and at the federal level. 

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