Government & Politics

Crime moves to forefront in Missouri governor’s race

Attorney General Chris Koster (left) and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens will face off this November to become Missouri’s next governor.
Attorney General Chris Koster (left) and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens will face off this November to become Missouri’s next governor. File photos

The year was only three hours old when Sederick Jones became Kansas City’s first homicide of 2016.

Eight months later the number stands at 73, almost 20 more than reported this time last year.

In St. Louis, where 188 homicides were reported last year, there have been 130 killings so far in 2016.

The issue of violence in the urban core — what Kansas City Mayor Sly James refers to as a “slow-motion mass murder” — doesn’t get a lot of attention in the Missouri Capitol. Yet the candidates for Missouri governor have begun to lay out their ideas for crime reduction and public safety, pushing the issue into the forefront of debate.

Both Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, a Republican, strike a similar “tough-on-crime” posture, promising harsher sentencing and opposing new restrictions on gun ownership.

But that’s where the similarities between the political rivals end.

Koster prefers to delve more into the nuance of public policy, calling for a court to be established to deal specifically with gun-related crimes, for tougher penalties for felons caught in possession of a firearm and for greater racial diversity in the law enforcement community.

“Investment in schools and bringing jobs to the urban core is a key piece to this, but candidly, that is a 10 to 15 years solution if you can keep a legislature with a short attention span focused,” Koster said. “So a strong law enforcement response is the best path forward to turn these high homicide rates around as quickly as possible.”

Greitens paints in broader strokes, saying he’ll push for stricter sentencing laws, including “the harshest penalties in the country for assaulting a law enforcement officer,” and vowing as governor to “support our police officers every single day.”

He points to his military background as a key qualification.

“(Police) deserve a leader who knows what it means to strap on body armor and wear a sidearm,” Greitens said. “They deserve to have a leader who understands what it means to say goodbye to your family and go out into the dark and do dangerous work.”

State role?

Typically, when it comes to violent crime in Missouri’s largest cities, the problem must be addressed by local leaders, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“That’s the structure of government, and the governor has limited tools to affect firearm violence,” he said. “But there’s nothing that prevents state government from assisting local police,” he added, pointing to things like additional funding and resources or using the bully pulpit to sway local policy makers.

But in Kansas City, the governor plays a much larger role. That’s because Kansas City’s police department is run by a state board appointed by the governor. Kansas City is the only large city in the nation with a police department under state control.

By emphasizing tougher sentences, each gubernatorial candidate is focused on an idea that hasn’t been proven effective over the last 20 years, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“When you look at the relationship with harsher sentences and more incarceration with lower crime rates, it’s a weak correlation,” Novak said. “Very little about crime reduction has to do with sentences or incarceration rates.”

The three elements to deterring crime, Novak said, are “certainty of punishment, swiftness of punishment and severity of punishment.”

“We’ve been bad at increasing certainty of punishment,” he said, “and certainty of punishment matters much more than severity.”

Typical drug dealers, Novak said, may deal drugs thousands of times before ever being arrested. So a harsh punishment doesn’t factor into their decision-making, he said, because they don’t think they are ever going to get caught.

“If we can enhance the ability of police to detect crime and hold people accountable, the severity of punishment is not as relevant,” Novak said.

That has fueled a push for law enforcement to focus attention on high-crime areas and high-risk individuals in an effort to stop crime before it happens and swiftly punish those who do commit acts of violence. In Kansas City, the idea has been put into action by the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.

Gun control

One area where both Koster and Greitens agree with each other, and oppose Kansas City and St. Louis leaders, is on the state’s gun laws. Both men support a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, that would have eliminated the requirement to complete training and get a permit to carry a concealed gun in public.

Greitens said he supports allowing Missourians to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in the state, and thinks it will make the streets safer.

“When you have law-abiding citizens who are actively ready to protect themselves and their family, that reduces crime,” Greitens said. “You don’t reduce crime by taking away guns from law-abiding citizens.”

Koster, who became the rare Democrat to win the NRA endorsement during his 2012 campaign, said it’s highly unlikely the “most gun-friendly legislature in the country” is going to approve restrictions on firearm ownership.

“So my mind goes to what I know works,” he said, “which is strong law enforcement and investment in mental health.”

But Koster and Greitens quickly diverge when the conversation turns to Ferguson, Mo.

The swirling chaos that enveloped Ferguson two years ago left a lasting scar on Missouri politics.

The death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer, and the resulting unrest, stoked a national discussion on police conduct, race relations and urban crime that continues to simmer.

Greitens has repeatedly slammed Koster for “failing to show up” during the Ferguson crisis, despite numerous instances where the attorney general was in Ferguson talking with police, protesters and community leaders.

Greitens says he visited Ferguson during the unrest, which led him to conclude that neither Koster nor Nixon demonstrated leadership or did enough to quell the violence. He accuses Koster of “abandoning our police officers in Ferguson,” and says that had he been governor during the crisis, “we could have had peace by the second night.”

“What I would have done is put in place a dusk-to-dawn curfew,” Greitens said. “I also would have said to people who were upset and confused and angry that I’m going to be at a local church with the local chief of police and the mayor and I’ll be there to listen to anyone who is hurting.”

Koster said Greitens “demonstrates a lack of understanding about the nature of the crisis we were facing in Ferguson.”

“It is disrespectful to the hundreds upon hundreds of officers who were working to defuse that dangerous situation day after day for Eric Greitens to go out and say if he’d been there we’d have had calm by the second night,” Koster said. “And then he says he was there. Well, I don’t know why he didn’t raise his magic wand and walk on water to calm everything.”

Koster said the Ferguson experience reinforced the need to “bridge a divide” between the African-American community and the law enforcement community “that has become problematic in policing around the country and which all of us are working to transcend and break down.”

In the end, although they disagree on policy, both men agree that urban crime must become a more relevant topic in Jefferson City.

“The legislature and the executive branch,” Koster said, “need to make this issue a priority in 2017.”