Staff ed: Proposition P is well-intentioned, but not what St. Louis needs

The St. Louis Police Department has been in the news often over the past four years. Most recently, the announcement of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley’s acquittal in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, and the ensuing protests around the city, put the national spotlight firmly on the city’s law enforcement.

In the wake of these events, the city needs to change something. The chosen route at the moment, Proposition P, will be voted on in Tuesday’s municipal special election. Proposition P essentially is a half-cent sales tax increase, which will generate around $20 million dollars annually, of which the city will use $13 million to increase police wages, hire more officers and pay for other miscellaneous improvements to law enforcement services.

The argument for the proposition goes something like this: St. Louis needs better police officers, and one way to make sure good police officers stay on the city police force—and don’t flee to better paying jobs in the county—is to pay them enough so they want to stay. If we pay cops more, there will be more of an incentive for them to do a better job, which will make the force as a whole better.

Better officers could very well be part of the solution to improving the St. Louis police force; however, Proposition P is far from perfect.

First of all, money will be generated through a sales tax, and it has been all of six months since the last time the city raised sales taxes (then, for expanding the MetroLink system).

A simple hike in the sales tax is not the city’s only option for extra funding.
Alternatives exist. Property taxes are not ideal funding for police forces, as money is tied to geographic areas, which leaves wealthy districts with better funding, and better police forces. A more creative progressive tax would go further in generating the revenue needed to reform the police department.

Another problem: This strategy has been tried before. Around 10 years ago, the city passed a similar proposition, Proposition S. Perhaps one can argue that the police department has fallen behind because it has failed to keep up with national wages, but this measure didn’t do much to help last time, considering we now have to do it all over again. The Student Life editorial board believes what the St. Louis Police Department needs is a permanent fix, through the dismissal of unethical, criminal officers and higher accountability for and retraining of current officers, rather than just a funding increase every decade.

Finally, one has to wonder if pay incentives really are the root of the city police’s issues. Many of the abuses seem structural in nature. While perhaps mediocre pay means police officers are less incentivized to do well, the system does not disincentive doing poorly. Stockley was acquitted. The police officers who abused protesters and chanted “our streets” in the ensuing demonstrations were applauded by the governor. A culture founded upon reckless abuses of the badge cannot be solved merely by paying officers more. Implicit bias cannot be eradicated with a pay raise.

One of the biggest issues with the proposition is the last section of the measure, which says the tax will fund “enhanced law enforcement services.” This is vague at best. Are the enhanced services training programs to help our police officers get better, or will these funds just support an inherently unchanged, increasingly militarized department?

If St. Louis citizens are going to pay for a $13 million dollar boost in the police force, they deserve an itemized receipt. Currently, there’s no way to gauge if Proposition P will have any discernable impact on the issues that plague the St. Louis Police Department, which directly impact the livelihood and safety of the citizens it’s supposed to protect.

A pay raise is insufficient and does not address the true root of police abuse in the city. We cannot know exactly how the rest of the money will be spent. The measure has its heart is in the right place, but St. Louis can do better than Proposition P.