JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Missouri police and prosecutors disagreed Monday over how to curb gun violence in a state rocked by the killings of more than a dozen children in St. Louis alone this year.
Law enforcement officials and advocates at a state Senate hearing swung from calling for more support for police to a strict law-and-order approach to crime to implementing so-called criminal justice reform.
Senators called the hearing in response to a surge of violence this year, particularly in Missouri’s big cities.
St. Louis and Kansas City have among the highest homicide rates in the nation. Both are on pace to top the number of killings from last year.
Missouri Police Chiefs Association President Sean Fagan told lawmakers that the biggest issues facing the state were recruiting and keeping police. Fagan, of Rolla’s police chief, said interest in the profession dipped in response to increased public scrutiny after Michael Brown, a black and unarmed 18-year-old, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer in 2014.
“People just don’t want to be police officers,” he said.
Fagan called for better police protection and higher pay for officers. He also asked lawmakers for more resources to combat drug crimes and criticized the early release of prisoners.
But black law enforcement leaders who testified cautioned against relying only on imprisonment to address violence.
“You cannot arrest your way out of violent crime,” St. Louis police Sgt. Heather Taylor said. “It’s never going to work.”
Taylor leads the Ethical Society of Police, a St. Louis group founded to fight racial discrimination in the community and among police. She said police corruption bred distrust in the community and discouraged witnesses of crime from coming forward.
Taylor cited poverty as a main factor in violent crime and pushed for higher wages for workers, health insurance and easy access to addiction treatment.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, the city’s first black female top prosecutor, advocated for improved witness protection programs. She also wants to expand police outreach to schoolchildren in hopes of preventing violence and steering youth away from gangs.
Gardner is one of several prosecutors around the U.S. elected in recent years with the promising of criminal justice reform.
Several advocates also pushed for gun control measures, such as background checks or ways to take firearms away from domestic abusers. But it’s unlikely that policies limiting access to firearms will advance in Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature when lawmakers return for their annual session in January.
Local leaders in Kansas City and St. Louis are seeking to address violence through tougher local gun laws since statewide legislation is unlikely in the conservative-led state. Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has pledged “to protect the rights of the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens.”
Parson assigned highway patrol officers in September to help fight crime in St. Louis.