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After 152 Years, St. Louis Gains Control Of Its Police Force

St. Louis is about to get something it hasn't had in 152 years: control of its own police force.

Thanks to a statewide ballot measure approved last fall, Missouri officially hands over the keys to the squad cars on Sunday.

It's only right for the city, which spends $180 million annually on cops, to take command, says Maggie Crane, director of communications for Mayor Francis Slay. "This is really just an antiquated system that needed to be changed," she says.

It all dates back to the Civil War. Claiborne Jackson, Missouri's segregationist governor, didn't want the Unionist city controlling its own arsenal. (History buffs will recall that Missouri, while a slave state, never seceded.)

It wasn't unusual in those days for states to take over local police. Cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and New York, however, have long since been able to run their own show.

Not St. Louis. The local-control idea never sold, in part because police officers themselves have been nervous about whether the city would make good on their pensions.

It also has a lot to do with continuing out-state skepticism about the city, says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri's St. Louis campus. "While the Civil War ended a century and a half ago, some of the sectional tensions and mistrust have not gone away," he says.

Supporters of local control couldn't sell their idea to the state legislature, but voters were sympathetic last November to the argument that city residents should have the final say over services they pay for.

Until now, the mayor held just one seat out of five on the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners. Now, he'll have the full authority to hire and fire the chief or make other operational moves.

No one expects the switch suddenly to bring down the city's high murder rate. The experience of getting arrested on Sunday will not be markedly different than it was yesterday.

"As far as day to day policing is concerned, I don't anticipate any significant change at all," Rosenfeld says. "Neither the state nor the city has sought to micromanage policing."

But Slay has promised significant savings as the police department merges administrative and technical functions with other city agencies. More importantly, Crane says, police who closely monitor high-crime "hot spots" will now work hand-in-glove with other departments to address issues such as identifying and cleaning up blighted properties.

There are still residents of St. Louis who worry that the city will somehow foul things up.

"There's a lot of corruption in City Hall," says Steve Amsden, who works for 3M in downtown St. Louis. "They have internal problems, like any other metropolitan police district."

Now, however, if there is police corruption, scandal or incompetence, people in St. Louis will know who to blame. They can take their complaints directly to the mayor, rather than trying to gain the attention of state legislators who might live 150 miles away.

The question is whether Kansas City, which is about to become the only major city in the country without control of its own police force, can get the same sort of deal.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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