Officer's death adds urgency to police residency bill

Officer's death adds urgency to police residency bill

CITY HALL – The death of St. Louis police Officer Tamarris L. Bohannon after being shot Saturday night is “just exceptionally sad,” Mayor Lyda Krewson. She acknowledged his family’s deep pain and that of so many city residents confronted with ongoing violence of many kinds.

In her livestreamed press conference Monday, she noted the surge of violence in St. Louis and across the nation. People ask why it’s happening, she said.

“There is a lot of pain in our community, there are a lot of drugs in our community, there’s increased addiction and overdoses, there are disputes, there are rivalries … so we are continuing to see that in St Louis as we are across the country,” she said.

“We need … our entire criminal justice system to work,” she added.

A shortage of police officers doesn’t help, but a bill in Missouri’s Congress may.

On Tuesday, a panel of Missouri senators advanced a bill that would temporarily end the decades-long requirement that St. Louis police live in the city.

The Senate’s public safety committee voted 5-2 in favor of the measure, which would lift the residency requirement for police, firefighters and other first responders in the city through 2023. The bill could come up for debate and a final vote in the Senate as early as Wednesday.

The bill gained traction in Missouri as protesters outraged by George Floyd’s death in Minnesota police custody have renewed calls for a community policing model, where officers are encouraged get to know their precincts and focus on deescalation.

But state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, a frequent protest leader, said allowing police to live outside St. Louis could contribute to tension between police and residents.

“You’re talking about officers that don’t culturally understand why these communities have so much anger, all the oppression that they’re currently going through,” Aldridge said.

He said depending on where police are recruited from, the change could also mean fewer police officers of color patrolling a city that’s almost evenly split between Black and white residents.

The current bill would allow officers to live within a one-hour response time of St. Louis, which is 48 percent white and 45 pecent Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for 2019.

Counties tend to get whiter farther out from St. Louis. About 68 percent of St. Louis County is white and 25 percent is Black. St. Charles County is almost 90 percent white.

There are still disparities among St. Louis police compared with the city’s population under the current residency rule. Roughly 67 percent of St. Louis police are white, according to data provided by the agency. Another 30 percent are Black.

The St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners enacted the residency requirement in 1973. The rule is still in place and requires police to live in the city for at least seven years before moving.

Former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who pushed for the change during his time as a St. Louis alderman, said at the time that the residency requirement would “help the city financially and make it a safer place to live.”

Rules that police and city employees live where they work rose in popularity in the 1970s, said Peter Eisinger, a retired New School professor who studied residency requirements.

He said Black mayors led the push for those policies as a way to diversify majority white police forces, employ more Black workers, and boost local tax revenue and the economy.

Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Equity Associate Director Geoff Ward said in an email that residency rules were aimed at bringing the racial makeup of police forces more in line with the surrounding areas.

The hope was that doing so would help put a stop to “the experience and perception of racially hostile ‘occupying armies’ of white officers in black neighborhoods,” he said.

“I do not know that residency requirements ever achieved those ends,” Ward said. “But I don’t see any signs that this government is motivated by these kinds of questions – by issues of police legitimacy and community trust and cooperation.”

Krewson had called to end the residency rule in the city as a way to boost recruitment for the understaffed agency and better fight a surge in crime in the city, which has for many years ranked among the nation’s most deadly.

Krewson didn’t get initial support from the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, so she asked the Republican-led Legislature for help. Since then, the Board of Aldermen voted to put the residency rule before St. Louis voters Nov. 3, but state lawmakers continue to work on the issue in a special session on crime.

St. Louis Police Commissioner Colonel John Hayden told senators on Tuesday that the residency requirement was the top barrier to hiring more officers, according to city police recruiters and surveys. He said the agency was down 145 officers.

“We desperately need more officers, and we need them now,” he said.

Krewson said Monday, “We are the only municipality in the region that has a residency requirement, so everybody else can recruit from the city of St. Louis, but St. Louis cannot recruit from anywhere else.”

She welcomed the upcoming graduates of the latest city police academy. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department will have 25-30 new members as of Thursday.

But, she added, more officers isn’t the city’s only crucial need in the quest to calm violence.

“We need more funding for mental health, for addiction,” she said, and CrimeStoppers needs help to offer rewards for tips on suspects. Also, she said, the city should keep expanding the new Cure Violence program, which has an office in Walnut Park and just opened its second, in Dutchtown, on Saturday.

Lawmakers pushing the end to the residency requirement have cited better and more specialized schools outside the city and the safety of officers’ families as reasons police want to live outside the city.

But the residency rule isn’t the only reason the SLMPD has trouble recruiting. Revelations of police misuse of force put officers in a harsh spotlight, discouraging people from entering the profession.

“There’s a lot of turmoil in law enforcement today,” Krewson agreed.

Critics say the focus should be on addressing the root causes of crime and making St. Louis a more attractive place to live.

“The problems in our city were created by decades of aggressive public policy that helped white communities and hurt Black communities,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, of Empower Missouri, in an earlier House hearing on the bill. “The solution isn’t to let folks who can somehow escape, but rather to invest in every community so that we’re all communities of opportunity.”

Krewson appealed to residents to help curb violence, partly by supporting law enforcement. Despite understandable criticism of some officers, she said, “we all want law enforcement there to respond when we need them to respond.”

She’d like to see gun permits reinstated for the city. But the city can’t overrule the state, which abolished the permit requirement as of January 2017.

“We live with the state laws,” she pointed out. Missouri won’t allow cities to enact own gun laws, “and we’re seeing some of the results of that.”

“Now virtually anyone can a gun anywhere, anytime,” she explained, with no training, no permit, no questions asked. “Right now, our streets are filled with guns.”

Krewson ended her talk with a plea for thoughts, prayers and financial support for Bohannon’s family. Donations are encouraged to the police family support organization BackStoppers.org

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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