When I first learned that the State, not the city, controlled the St. Louis police department, I thought it was a novelty.  After learning the history of how it happened, though, it didn’t seem so much ‘novel’ as disturbing – all the more disturbing that elected officials today maneuver to keep state control in place.

On the eve of the Civil War, Missouri was torn in several directions: many sympathized with the Southern cause, including most of the General Assembly; some among them (like then-Governor Claiborne Jackson) were determined that Missouri should secede from the Union.  But St. Louis was the wrench in these plans: They were pro-Union, pro-emancipation, and they were surprisingly well organized.

The pro-Union Republicans were given the moniker “St. Louis Wide-Awakes” for their habit of marching to meetings with arms and lanterns.  Initially, their exercises were just to protect their meetings from hecklers, but they also caught the attention of anti-Unionists in the legislature.

Unfortunately for the conspiring secessionists, St. Louis was home of the largest arsenal available to Southern states – and the hawkeyed St. Louis Republicans were a problem.

From General Nathaniel Lyon and Missouri in 1861, by James Peckham:

“The Legislature was no sooner organized …then the conspirators set to work to carry out their schemes… A meeting, for consultation, of leading secessionists, was held in a basement room of the Capitol, and it was decided that St. Louis should be placed completely under the control of state authorities.

“…The majority exhibited their fears of St. Louis County, so in the following they exhibited their hate toward its people individually.  By an arrangement with prominent St. Louis secessionists, twelve members of the House and six of the Senate were selected as a special sub-committee upon St. Louis matters.”

The sub-committee was stacked with secessionists, and when the conspiracy was uncovered, Rep. Graham Vest boasted that it should continue “until St. Louis was purged of its Black Republicanism,” meaning pro-emancipation Republicanism.

So, as part of the plan to weaken St. Louis, the General Assembly passed a bill that deprived St. Louis’ mayor and sheriff of their ability to control their local forces, and gave that power to the governor.  The police commissioners (appointed by the governor) were selected to support the eventual capture of the arsenal at St. Louis, including Basil Duke, leader of the minutemen and future Confederate General.

While the capture of the arsenal was ultimately thwarted (thanks in part to the St. Louis Wide-Awakes), the entire rationale behind state control of the St. Louis police department was to weaken the city.

In fact, it was because St. Louis was vigilant against attack that the governor wrested power from her.   It was a bill designed so that St. Louis could not fend for itself, as it had been doing so successfully – to the chagrin of secessionists.

It’s hard for me to believe that St. Louis’ crime rate and state control of our local police are coincidental.  I don’t think anyone in office today wants a St. Louis with rampant crime, but this law was designed to weaken St. Louis by preventing her from ably responding to the concerns of her citizens, and that weakness has been wearing on us for 150 years.

That’s what makes the litany of random hurdles the General Assembly is throwing in front of St. Louis’ bid for the return of local control so ridiculous: The state controls the St. Louis police force.  When state officials point a finger at corruption allegations, at crime rates or budget problems or organization, we should notice that three fingers are pointed back at the state.

Moreover, there are no benchmarks proscribed by law that St. Louis must meet in order to regain control. Regardless of what hoops we jump through, there is no real path back to local control (of course not!  We were supposed to join the Confederacy).

As a Missouri resident, I’m disgusted at efforts to hang on to a law whose sole purpose was to protect the institution of slavery.

And as a St. Louis resident, I have to agree with Thomas Jefferson’s defense of keeping local issues in control of local government:

“It is by dividing and subdividing these republics, from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government, which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body…”

If you haven’t yet, please sign the petition to return Local Control in St. Louis.