State lawmakers spar over how to handle spike in violence

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — A Missouri lawmaker pitching a tough-on-crime bill Tuesday directed blame for a surge in violence in the state’s biggest cities at factors including the sometimes violent protests in Ferguson and St. Louis’ prosecutor.

Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, told a panel of state senators that a law-and-order approach had worked in the past to reduce crime across the U.S. He said the “riots” in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where protests continued for months after the fatal police shooting of black 18-year-old Michael Brown, had marked a turning point.

“Since then, every police officer fears being the next Darren Wilson,” Onder said, referring to the white officer who shot Brown in 2014. Wilson was not charged with a crime; he later resigned.

Onder, who is white, also placed blame on St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, whom he described as a “far left” prosecutor uninterested in going after violent criminals.

Soon after taking office in 2017 as St. Louis’ first black circuit attorney, Gardner announced that she would cease prosecutions of low-level marijuana crimes. In 2018, she developed an “exclusion list” of more than two dozen police officers who were barred from serving as primary witnesses in criminal cases over what Gardner called credibility concerns.

Last week she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the city, the local police union and others of a coordinated and racist conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office.

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, who is black, said Onder was looking at the issue of crime from the perspective of a white man, who she said were “privileged in the U.S.” She cited racism and other systemic issues, such as poor funding for re-entry programs to help former inmates, as major problems that needed to be addressed.

“You’re not looking through the lens of the citizens who live in St. Louis city,” May told Onder.

The dispute highlights a broader divide between Missouri lawmakers over how to address an uptick in violence.

Last year was bloody. St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield all have seen spikes in gun crimes and homicides in recent years, and more than a dozen children were killed in gun violence in St. Louis last year.

While Democrats have called for more restrictions on gun ownership and greater flexibility for cities to impose their own gun rules, the Republican majority is pushing to ramp up penalties for violent crime and other weapons-related crimes. Onder’s bill would lengthen minimum prison sentences for felonies committed with weapons.

Other GOP-backed proposals include stronger witness protection programs and better mental health services.

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