The Missouri House voiced initial approval for two bills Tuesday aimed to create more protections for law enforcement officers. The approval came just hours after a committee discussed a proposal that would require courts to appoint special prosecutors in officer-involved shooting or death cases.
The legislation comes in the wake of a national conversation about policing and race sparked by the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown near St. Louis. Since that time, lawmakers have grappled with responses to violence against police, allegations of racial profiling by officers and a state justice system under scrutiny.
On Tuesday the House acted on a bill establishing a Blue Alert System, which has been heavily endorsed by Gov. Eric Greitens. The system would notify people when an officer in the area has been shot or assaulted, similar to an Amber Alert for missing children.
The House also gave initial approval to a proposal that would increase the penalties for assaulting a police officer.
Under the current law, someone could be accused of voluntary manslaughter if they kill someone without planning it beforehand. They could be charged with a Class B felony and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Under the new law, if a person commits voluntary manslaughter on a police officer, they would be charged with a Class A felony and charged with a maximum of life in prison.
Supporters of the bill said law enforcement officers needed more protection since they volunteered for a dangerous job. The penalties also reinforce the image of a police officer as a symbol of law and order, said Rep. Nick Marshall from Parkville, Missouri.
In 2016, 135 police officers were killed on the job. That's 10 percent more than in 2015, but still below the average for the last 10 years, according to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Last year saw a spike in police killed from firearms, with 64 officers being shot.
Some lawmakers said raising penalties wouldn't solve any problems because people who assault police were already punished.
Rep. Brandon Ellington from Kansas City said that making the penalties harsher started the state down a "slippery slope" of giving certain people more weight under the law.
"Now we want to create special categories for people who aren't in any more danger than they were 10, 20 years ago," Ellington said. " ... We want to be pro-law enforcement, but anti-civilian."
Both the Blue Alert System and bill increasing penalties face one more House vote before they move to the Senate.
In a committee hearing Tuesday morning, House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann-Beatty presented a bill that would require judges to appoint a special prosecutor in officer-involved shooting or death cases. She said it would give the public a view of transparency since county prosecutors work closely with police departments.
It's the first step in creating trust between the public and the judicial system, she said.
"I don't believe that this legislation is the ultimate legislation," McCann-Beatty said. "I think there are other things that we still need to do to improve public trust — this is simply one step."
During the Michael Brown case, some people pushed unsuccessfully for St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to step aside and allow a special prosecutor to be appointed. McCulloch's office instead presented the case to a grand jury, which decided not to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for Brown's death.
A representative from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said the bill suggests prosecutors cannot be unbiased and that the justice system does a sufficient job of preventing conflicts of interest.