ST. LOUIS (AP) — St. Louis voters are deciding Tuesday on a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund pay raises for police, but the timing of the proposal isn’t great.
The Sept. 15 acquittal of white former police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of a black suspect led to angry protests, and while the size of the demonstrations has dwindled, disruptions continue, and the protests have fueled anger at police. More than 300 people have been arrested, with several alleging officers used unnecessary tear gas, pepper spray and force.
Supporters of Proposition P, including Mayor Lyda Krewson, say it is necessary to pay competitive wages to the approximate 1,200 police officers along with firefighters.
Opponents of the ballot measure question if police deserve a raise given the recent allegations of misconduct.
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In an editorial opposing the ballot measure posted Thursday, the African-American newspaper the St. Louis American cited the mass arrest of about 120 people following a heated downtown protest on Sept. 17.
The editorial said officers “infamously trampled over constitutional rights on a night officers marched through the streets with paramilitary equipment,” and Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole declared that police “owned the night.”
“In any other line of work, an employee this negligent of duty and offensive to the public who pays his salary would be fired — not offered millions of dollars to expand his kingdom,” the American wrote.
Violent crime has risen in recent years in St. Louis, a city nearly evenly split between black and white residents. Race relations have intensified, too, following several police-involved shooting deaths of black suspects, reaching a boiling point after Stockley’s acquittal of first-degree murder charges in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Opponents also say the sales tax hike would disproportionally hurt the needy, who spend a higher percentage of their money on necessities.
But Krewson, in an interview, said investing in police will make the department better.
Krewson and other supporters worry that without raises city officers will increasingly look to take jobs in St. Louis County. Just last week, the county council approved a pay hike that will amount to an immediate 30 percent average increase for county officers. The money comes from a similar ballot measure approved by county voters in April.
St. Louis County officers will now start at $52,000, about $10,000 more than the starting pay for city officers.
“That really turned the dynamics of policing and police salaries on its head when you consider we are completely surrounded by St. Louis County,” Krewson said. Without raises for city officers, she said, St. Louis County “will be able to attract our best people and it will be more difficult to recruit the best officers.”
The ballot proposal would generate about $20 million in revenue each year, allowing for an average raise of up to $6,000 per officer. The median salary in St. Louis is around $51,600.
About $13 million would go to police, $5.4 million to the fire department and $1.5 million to the circuit attorney’s office.
The tax increase also would trigger an increase in a business use tax, bringing in $4 million. Krewson wants to use that money for crime prevention efforts such as after-school programs and mental health services.