early and often

Red States Crack Down on Local Control of Law Enforcement

Missouri Republican attorney general Andrew Bailey, who is seeking to remove elected St. Louis Democratic circuit attorney Kim Gardner for not being tough enough on crime. Photo: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As recently as 2015, Bloomberg columnist Francis Wilkinson was able to say, without fear of contradiction, “If you are a Republican, decentralization of power is a cornerstone of your party and political philosophy. After all, Republican demonization of Washington and the federal government stems in part from a belief that government is too large and power too centralized.”

More recently, Republicans have made it clear that they favor exactly as much decentralization as is necessary to force their policy preferences on the maximum number of people. Most notably, after decades of complaining about judicial tyranny over abortion policy, Republicans are racing to impose state-legislative tyranny over those same policies — when they aren’t calling for federal abortion bans to preempt blue-state governments. But state-level Republicans are moving aggressively to end local control of law enforcement where it might contradict their own law-and-order policies, as CNN’s Ronald Brownstein observes:

From Florida and Mississippi to Georgia, Texas and Missouri, an array of red states are taking aggressive new steps to seize authority over local prosecutors, city policing policies, or both. These range from Georgia legislation that would establish a new statewide commission to discipline or remove local prosecutors, to a Texas bill allowing the state to take control of prosecuting election fraud cases, to moves by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey to dismiss from office elected county prosecutors who are Democrats, and a Mississippi bill that would allow a state takeover of policing in the capital city of Jackson.

Rationales for these centralizing Republican policy measures vary from case to case and place to place. But the basic idea is that urban Democrats — and particularly Black and brown urban Democrats — cannot be trusted with decisions to determine or enforce penalties for criminal offenses.

It doesn’t seem to matter that, generally speaking, the local prosecutors Republican state officials are trying to remove or usurp have been democratically elected or that the police officers deemed insufficiently repressive reported to democratically elected mayors or county commissions. And, for that matter, as Brownstein notes, the desire to disenfranchise local governments goes well beyond crime policy:

The growing efforts by red states to seize authority over law enforcement in blue cities is drawing energy from the convergence of two powerful trends.

One is the increased tendency of red states to override the decisions of those blue metros on a wide array of issues — on everything from minimum wage and family leave laws to environmental regulations, mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even recycling policies for plastic bags. The other is the intensifying political struggle over crime that has produced an intense pushback against the demands for criminal justice reform that emerged in the nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

So decentralization only works for Republicans when it works for the interests they represent — including businesses chafing under local regulations and conservative suburbanites upset about alleged crime spikes in the cities near them.

This isn’t a new thing; Republicans were heavily involved (as were many Democrats) in the “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s that federalized large areas of law enforcement and reduced state and local prosecutorial and judicial discretion over criminal sentencing and incarceration levels. For many years, Republicans have favored federal preemption of state and local environmental and labor policies that discomfited corporations. And more recently, Republican attacks on “sanctuary cities” have reflected hostility to local prerogatives when they conflicted with national GOP dogma.

Basically, for today’s GOP, the ends justifies the means, so don’t expect respect for any level of government that skews “wrong” on conservative priorities.

More on politics

See All
Red States Crack Down on Local Control of Law Enforcement