House pushes mental health awareness after death of members’ family friend

The sponsor of mental health legislation said that issue hit close to home for her on the day her bill came to the House floor.

Representative Chrissy Sommer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Charles Republican Chrissy Sommer said that during her drive to the Capitol on Monday she received the tragic news that the mother of her daughter’s best friend had committed suicide.

“You may have noticed I’m a little shaky and nervous, and the reason is because on my way here today I found out that a friend of mind committed suicide, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot,” said Sommer.  “It really struck me that this [bill] was pulled up today … because it can affect everyone.”

The House gave initial approval to House Bill 108, which would have Missouri join the federal government in making May “Mental Health Awareness Month,” and in making July “Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.”

“I’m thinking of her and I’m doing this in her honor, and I hope that we will pass it … I don’t mean to get emotional … but I hope that we will pass this not only in her honor but in the honor of everyone who has lost someone to suicide,” said Sommer.

Sommer said untreated mental health contribute to things like unemployment, disability, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and suicide.

“Early identification and treatment of mental illnesses have proven to be vital to any recovery process.  Stigma association with mental illness prevents many individuals from seeking the necessary treatment,” said Sommer.

The House heard that there are particular stigmas and disparities within minority communities regarding mental health.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks, who speaks openly about numerous traumas in his life including seeing his brother fatally shot when they were both children, said he has contemplated suicide in the past.  He said there is a stigma in the African American community about getting help and what “mental health” is.”

Representative Bruce Franks (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I talk on the floor about the funerals I’ve gone through and some of the things that I’ve seen, and even a couple of my Republican colleague friends on the other side have been to my district to see some of these traumatic things, so just imagine when folks are going through this each and every day and it plays on you mentally and you never get the help that you need because the people in your community and society sees this as a stigma,” said Franks.

Franks said the legislation is “very important, and it’s not just about an awareness month.  It’s about education and empowering people to let them know it’s okay to not be okay but it’s okay to seek help.”

Jefferson City Republican Dave Griffith said he hopes raising awareness will cause more struggling veterans to get help.

“Many of you may not have heard ‘hashtag-22.’  Hashtag-22 stands for the 22 veterans that commit suicide every day.  It is for real.  These men and women are suffering from PTSD and from many other mental illnesses and having a day or a month that we can recognize them is something that I stand for,” said Griffith.

“The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act on it, and one way to do this is for us in Missouri to enact the Mental Health Awareness Month,” said Sommer.

With the House’s action on Monday, one more favorable vote would send HB 108 to the Senate.

House rejects greater penalties for assaulting, killing police dogs, following emotional debate

The Missouri House has defeated a bill to increase penalties for assaulting or killing a law enforcement animal amid emotional debate led by black Democrats, who emphasized what they say those dogs represent to their communities.

Representative Robert Cornejo (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1649 would increase those penalties as high as a class-C felony, which carries up to ten years in prison, for killing a police dog or injuring it to the extent it cannot continue to be used as a police dog.

The sponsor of House Bill 1649, St. Charles Republican Robert Cornejo, has offered similar legislation for several years.  He said the penalties for hurting or killing a police dog are too lenient.

“Even if you treat it as property, with the tens of thousands of dollars that are invested in this property I don’t think that the punishment should be the same as failing to return a library book that’s worth ten bucks.  I think this is something that is right-sizing the punishment,” said Cornejo.

The bill was given initial approval last week but only after many Democrats spoke against it saying that police dogs have, in the words of Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City), “been used as a weapon against black citizens.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

During debate before the vote whether to send the bill to the Senate, Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-Ferguson) spoke with Cornejo about what police dogs meant to him.

“I can remember when I was in elementary school how much I would hate watching civil rights videos because of what they did with those dogs,” said Franks.

Some Republicans also talked about issues they had with the legislation.  Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) said under HB 1649 the penalties for killing or disabling a police dog would be greater than those for second degree rape or assaulting a person in a nursing home.  He also said the bill leaves no room for self-defense against a police dog and does not account for incidents in which a dog might be used improperly by police.

“This piece of legislation does not allow me to stand my ground against a police dog,” said Dogan.  “It is the irony of all ironies that those of us who support the Second Amendment would say that I have a right to self-defense, that I have a right to use deadly force against other people when I believe that my life is in jeopardy from them, but if I’m being charged at by a police dog then that right just goes away and I have to take whatever that dog is going to give me.”

Some Republicans said the issues that were raised caused them to change from favoring the bill in last week’s vote to opposing it.  Rolla Republican Keith Frederick told Beatty the legislation needs to be reconsidered.

Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications

“I think if I were in the African American community and hearing the discussion that you’ve done today, I would very much be saying to myself, ‘You know, this is not good optics, for sure; it’s not a good perception,’” said Frederick.

The vote on the bill was 73-68, short of the 82 needed to send it to the Senate.  Cornejo noted that there were 14 members absent for that vote and said the bill could be brought up again for consideration, or that the issue should still receive attention.

“I think if we had full attendance the bill would’ve passed,” said Cornejo.  “I know, speaking with somebody already since the vote, there may be a motion to [reconsider] or we could revisit this issue as an amendment on the floor in the future.”

Beatty said she was, “a little bit,” surprised that the bill failed.

“I was very impressed by the fact that folks actually listened,” said Beatty.  “I don’t think when we did the perfection [vote] that people understood the deep-seeded anguish that people felt over this particular bill, particularly when we were basically saying that animal’s life takes precedent.”

Democrats also called for other bills dealing with police matters to be advanced.

“Until we face this issue head-on and look at the legislation that’s out there and really deal with the issue little pieces like this are not going to fix it and there’s going to be unintended consequences,” said Beatty.

Legislators considering whether to criminalize protests that block highways, streets

A state legislator has proposed making it a crime to block streets or highways during protests or riots.

State Representative Nick Marshall (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
State Representative Nick Marshall (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Parkville Republican Nick Marshall said he filed the bill in response to protests in recent years, such as those in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the decision by the St. Louis County prosecutor not to file charges against the Ferguson police officer that shot him.

Marshall said the goal is to discourage roadway protests, “which have the intent of blocking innocent citizens which are trying to make their way home or wherever they have to go, may or may not have children in their vehicle.”

House Bill 826 would create the crime of, “unlawful traffic interference,” for walking, standing, sitting, laying in, or placing an object on a street, highway, or interstate highway with the intention of interfering with traffic.  Penalties would range from up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for first offenses, to up to seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine for blocking traffic while part of an unlawful assembly.

Marshall said the bill would protect Missourians.

“If I’m actually trapped on an interstate, I’m surrounded by cars, I’m surrounded by angry folks that are not letting me leave, I am really having trouble – and a lot of my constituents as well back home have trouble, and those watching it on TV – have trouble distinguishing that from being unlawfully imprisoned,” said Marshall.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks was among those who protested in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.  He told Marshall, “I would have had a felony if this law was in place.”

Franks said he understands Marshall’s position, but he felt the bill would interfere with people’s rights of assembly and free speech.

“It just feels to me that we do have the right to protest but only if we’re holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” said Franks.

The bill has the support of the Missouri State Trooper’s Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the Missouri Sheriff’s Association.

Brad Thielemier with the Trooper’s Association said it is concerned about safety issues raised by protests on roadways, for both drivers and protesters.

“People who might be standing in the highways and may get hit, especially on the highways and interstates where cars may be moving fairly fast, possible altercations that may take place from angry motorists, also the motorists who may have medical issues, law enforcement personnel trying to get to certain places,” said Thielemeier.  “We support the concept of making sure that public safety is protected.”

Ballwin Republican Shamed Dogan asked Mark Bruns with the Fraternal Order of Police whether protesters blocking traffic truly creates a substantial obstacle.

“Everybody has to deal with traffic accidents every day, and these are kind of less common occurrences,” said Dogan.  “I would think that firefighters and law enforcement could work their way around these situations.”

“They could,” Bruns responded.  “I think it would be a big burden, though, for the person that needs the help.”

Franks also questioned whether the new crime would actually deter anyone who wants to protest on streets or highways.

“Do you think the punitive damages within this bill is going to deter somebody who’s passionate about whatever it is that they’re fighting for from shutting down a highway, or a street, or anything else?” Franks asked Thielemeier.

“I would like to think that possible penalties may give someone pause,” said Theilemeier.  “But I understand that passions for issues that people believe in, they probably will not worry about that.”

The House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety has not voted on HB 826.