Critics worry Missouri measure reduces police accountability

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FILE – In this June 21, 2020 file photo, protesters are hit with a chemical spray from police officers outside police headquarters in Florissant, Mo. A Missouri bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Mike Parson includes a so-called police “bill of rights” that establishes guidelines for investigating officers accused of wrongdoing. Critics say it reduces police accountability at a time when many states are enacting laws to make police more accountable. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

More than half of all U.S. states have enacted police reforms in the 13 months since George Floyd’s death, but critics contend a Missouri measure would go the other way by reducing police accountability while increasing criminal penalties for some protest activities.

Senate Bill 26, sometimes referred to as the police “bill of rights,” was approved by Missouri lawmakers in May and is awaiting the signature of Republican Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff. His spokeswoman said Parson is still reviewing the bill. If signed, it would become law Aug. 28.

George Floyd’s death in May 2020 prompted soul-searching in many states. Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced last week to 22 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of murder in Floyd’s death.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, around 30 states have passed police reform legislation since Floyd was killed. Among the new laws: Nine states and the District of Columbia banned chokeholds, while 12 states and the District of Columbia updated or changed their use of force policies.

“My impression is that Missouri is tone deaf to the real reforms that are necessary,” said Rod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP. “Missouri just turned its back on it.”

Missouri isn’t alone in its approach. In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican,signed a law providing new protections for police and increasing penalties for protesters involved in property damage or violence.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill last month that makes it easier for police to charge activists for public disorder, obstructing a roadway and engaging in unlawful assembly. That bill also adds protections for police, such as restricting circumstances in which an officer may be discharged or disciplined.

The Missouri bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel of St. Charles County, said it takes necessary steps to protect police and the public.

One provision addresses the so-called “defund the police” movement. It prohibits decreasing the budget for a policing agency by more than 12% compared to the jurisdiction’s other departments over a five-year period.

The bill comes as some progressives in St. Louis and Kansas City want to reduce police budgets and use the money for things such as mental health services and addiction treatment.

“We’ve seen both of those large urban areas take steps to slowly move dollars away from their police force, which is absolutely the wrong direction to go,” Eigel said. “Ultimately it comes back to supporting law enforcement, which was the original intent of the bill.”

Another provision spells out procedures for disciplining police, which Eigel calls the police bill of rights. Among other things, it requires records of any administrative investigation to be “confidential and not subject to disclosure under Sunshine Law,” except by subpoena or court order. The Sunshine Law is Missouri’s open records law.

The Missouri bill also puts limits on investigations of officers and provides protection against civil claims unless the officer is criminally convicted.

“This gives due process rights for discipline, which was sorely needed,” said Kevin Ahlbrand, legislative director for the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. “There is still a process for disciplining an officer. It doesn’t protect bad officers.”

The bill upgrades the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony if someone vandalizes “any public monument or structure on public property.” Public structures such as police stations have sometimes been targeted by racial injustice protesters, as have monuments including those honoring the Confederacy. The upgraded charge means, potentially, more jail time and a higher fine.

Another provision creates a new class D misdemeanor for anyone who “willfully or recklessly” interferes with an ambulance. Racial injustice protesters often march or gather on streets, roads and highways, which authorities say risks blocking access for ambulances and other first responders.

“We can absolutely preserve the right of free speech without putting each other in danger,” Eigel said.

St. Louis activist Darryl Gray called it an “anti-Democracy bill” that seeks to threaten and intimidate racial injustice protesters.

“It pushes people away from exercising their First Amendment rights,” Gray said. “We find it all as an assault on democracy and assault on our freedom of speech and our right to peacefully assemble.”

A provision in another Missouri bill this session would have allowed use of deadly force against protesters on private property and given immunity to people who run over demonstrators blocking traffic. That proposal was later dropped.

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