"He said, 'If you don't give us the money we want, then we'll just reduce the number on the police department, give everybody a pay raise, and when crime goes up, we're gonna blame you,'" says Slay, as one shiny black shoe taps the plush red carpet.

So Mayor Slay has a lot riding on local control. He's been pushing for it for five years now. This is one of those issues you put at the top of the political résumé: "First mayor in St. Louis history to regain control of city's police department." Looks good in ink.

Slay is a jowly but lean man with Irish eyes, a friar bald spot and an innately amiable demeanor. He walks a thin rhetorical line as he rallies for local control: He must convince people that the structure of the police department needs to be changed, without insinuating that the officers are doing a piss-poor job or that there is a crime problem in St. Louis.

State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm 
black before I'm a Democrat.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Representative Jamilah Nasheed: I'm black before I'm a Democrat.
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.
Jennifer Silverberg
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal is one of many Democrats who question Nasheed's loyalty to the party.

To those who say the system is effective the way it is, Slay counters by asking: If state control works so well, why doesn't any city outside Missouri do it?

To those who argue that local control would politicize the department, Slay counters that the department is already politicized. He points to that time in February 2010 when commissioner Vincent Bommarito used his post to try to get his nephew off the hook for a DUI. Then he mentions the time commissioner Todd Epstein, appointed by Governor Matt Blunt, was unseated as board president when two new members, appointed by Governor Jay Nixon, voted to replace him with another Nixon appointment.

And the city of St. Louis hasn't been able to do anything about it. Instead, the fate of a local-control bill lies with a bunch of outstate, rural legislators with no stake in the matter. That's why Slay's legs are restless as he sits in his high-ceilinged, mahogany-doored office.

"When I went up to Jeff City to ask for this originally," he says, "it was kind of funny how this was received. Like this was gonna be something different and scary. When all we were asking for is what virtually every other city in America has."

There's a myth that state control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department came out of the Civil War, that segregationist governor Claiborne Jackson took the reins of the department because St. Louis was a Union city and he wanted to control its massive arsenal.

But that story is only half-true, notes Allen Wagner, who wrote Good Order and Safety: A History of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1861-1906. While Jackson did use state control to advance the Confederate cause, state control wasn't his idea.

The first bill proposing state control was filed in 1859 by a state senator from St. Louis named Charles Drake. At the time, state- controlled police departments were popular in big cities across America. New York started the trend in 1857, and soon Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Baltimore and San Francisco all followed. But Drake's bill never got out of committee.

A year later, Erastus Wells, a St. Louis alderman, took a cross-country trip and asked the mayors he met a simple question: Who has the best police department? Told the Baltimore Police Department, he drafted a bill to build the St. Louis police department in Baltimore's image and handed it to the legislators in Jefferson City. The bill passed in March 1861.

The power struggle between Mayor James Thomas and the commissioners began almost immediately after the Civil War. By 1867, Thomas was so frustrated that he stopped showing up at board meetings. When his term ended in 1869, Thomas declared that the city should control its own police department.

"And that was the first time anybody tried to bring local control back to St. Louis," says Wagner.

Over the next 150 years, New York, Chicago and all those other big cities returned police control to city hall. The fad had passed. Since Baltimore made the change in 1962, St. Louis has been the only city in America yet to switch back.(The only outlier, Kansas City, was granted local control in 1932 then voted in 1979 to switch back to state control, where it remains.)

St. Louis never got close. Before last year, a local-control bill had never even passed out of committee.

Slay blames the union representing officers, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which had always been against local control.

"And then," he adds, "you've got a lot of disinterested individuals throughout the entire state of Missouri who basically didn't want to get in the middle of a fight with the cops."

The union had its reasons.

"Our big concern," says business manager Jeff Roorda, "was always that the things we fought so hard for — our benefits, our labor rights, our rights with respect to appealing discipline — that those things we've fought for so long and so hard were protected."

The city charter provides ordinances in the event that St. Louis regains police control. But because they were written almost 100 years ago, they're well below today's standards: There's no mention of benefits for widows and children of those killed in action nor financial assistance for those who pursue further education. The police union worried that if control returns to the city, they could lose some benefits.

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