While police reform will be absent from a special legislative session on violent crime, Gov. Mike Parson could not have tuned out the low hum of “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye,” sounding from protesters gathered Thursday in the lobby of Columbia City Hall.
The governor stopped in the city to talk to local officials as part of a statewide tour in advance of the special session, which is scheduled to begin Monday.
As he spoke to reporters after the meeting, a divider wall was set up in front of the glass between the protesters and the council chambers. The barrier mostly blocked his view of the many signs reading Black Lives Matter and other slogans aimed at police accountability.
“If Parson is here to work on violent crime in mid-Missouri, I feel like he should be talking to the people who are protesting for the past month,” said Kirubel Mesfin of the local People’s Defense group, which has vowed not to stop protesting until police brutality and other criminal justice system failings are addressed.
“If he is not going to immediately listen to us, we will be present and he will know we are there,” Mesfin added. “And if he refuses to address police brutality, November is coming.”
Parson told reporters that conversations on those topics will be had, adding that he has met with stakeholders in the Black community and is aware of their concerns.
Given 235 homicides in 2020 in the state’s two urban centers of Kansas City and St. Louis, many of whom were young children, violent crime needs to be the focus of the day, he said.
“All along since I have been governor, I have met with members of the African-American community across the state and will continue to do that, all the way from education to violent crime,” Parson said. “We are going to continue to do that as we do things. Whether that is trying to get more funding to help people with education, jobs or health service.
“Why I am here today is to address the violent crime. That is a concern everywhere in the state.”
Greater witness protections will be part of the special session, a topic applauded by Boone County assistant prosecutor Morley Swingle.
Two recent homicide investigations, were met with a refusal by witnesses to assist, citing fear of retaliation, Swingle said.
“We have all seen movies about the federal witness protection program. Have you ever seen a witness being protected by the Missouri witness protection program?” Swingle asked rhetorically. “This is a huge, important piece of legislation.
“Because right now, when an officer is asked by a witness what can you do to protect me tonight and in the coming months, there is not enough they can say truthfully that they can protect them.”
Sandy Karsten, director of the Department of Public Safety, also spoke at the press conference on the importance of having the support of the community in solving crimes.
Part of that includes witness protection, as it gives law enforcement tools needed to build that trust, she said.
“One of the pieces we know is so important in solving those violent crimes is to have the assistance of our community,” Karsten said. “As law enforcement officers we cannot do this job ourselves and must have the cooperation of those willing to come forward and identify themselves as a witness, to help solve crimes and bring peace to victims.”
Other planned special session topics include the admissibility in court of some statements not currently allowed, changes to child endangerment crimes, residency requirements for St. Louis police, adult certifications for juvenile suspects in some firearm crimes and sales of firearms to children.
Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones described the Parson goal to reduce violent crime as “an opportunity” to work toward a solution. The city has seen its share of violent deaths in the past two years, including a dozen shootings and five homicides in September 2019 alone.
And over Independence Day weekend this year, five people were shot — two of whom were killed, including an 11-year-old girl — in what Jones said was spurred by an argument over fireworks.
“To see a special session being called that asks our legislators to have the conversation and take action is exciting for me,” Jones said. “It is encouraging to the officers and should be encouraging to our citizens.”
Just before the news conference began, Parson himself tweeted on the recent death of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro in Kansas City, killed while sleeping in his bed. A $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to a suspect in his killing, and his name was used to identify a federal crime initiative in that city.
Such a narrow focus at next week’s special session, however, has also drawn criticism from many state Democrats, who argue police reform and social support systems are just as important and can also reduce violence on the streets.
Violent crime and topics for the special session were also voiced a year ago and were answered with Parson calling a special session on used vehicle tax breaks, as pointed out last week by his opponent in the upcoming election, State Auditor Nicole Galloway.
“Then, the Governor promised our mayors that he would support legislation addressing gun violence only to break his promise and deny he ever made it,” Galloway said. “As a legislator, Governor Parson voted in favor of making guns easier for criminals to acquire even when law enforcement begged him not to.”
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, president of the equity group Race Matters, Friends, said the barrier in front of Thursday’s protesters meant Parson was afraid to face the people of his own state gathered outside.
“If he is afraid to deal with protesters, he should stay ... in Jefferson City,” Wilson-Kleekamp said.
“We need people that are committed to anti-racism and justice. If he can’t come here and speak to the people directly with the mayor and the chief, we have no use for him,” she added. “Enough with the games.”