A special legislative session set to begin later this month will be narrowly tailored to focus on violent crime across Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson told reporters gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol.


Issues now the focus of weeks of protests across the state and nation, such as police brutality, racial bias and the use of chokeholds by police, to name a few, will need to wait for the state Legislature to convene in January.


"Let me be clear: This call for a special session will be narrowly focused on violent crime," Parson said. "There are a lot of questions asked about the other things being talked about, the things which involve the protests around the state. Those issues will come. Those conversations will take place.


"They need to take place in the legislative session where there is time to deal with it, there is time to have committee hearings and there is time to do the process of what the legislators do."


Lawmakers will convene July 27. Under the state Constitution, they have 60 days to work on legislation, though most sessions are much shorter and pass bills prepared in advance in as little as five days.


Democrats immediately responded to Parson’s special session agenda with a call for a broader look at policing as well as gun laws and accused him of trying to shift focus away from surging COVID-19 cases and sagging poll numbers.


"A year ago, House Democrats implored Governor Parson to call a special legislative session on the epidemic of gun violence across our state," House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield wrote in a news release. "He refused. Much like with the COVID-19 pandemic, his failure to act has resulted in needless loss of life and no clear path to preventing more."


Flanked by police chiefs and sheriffs from throughout the state, Parson said the special session is in response to upticks in violence, including the deaths this year of several children in areas of the state. He cited a 35% increase in homicides in Kansas City and 31% increase in St. Louis compared to last year, but added violence was affecting all of Missouri.


"We know we have a serious problem with violent crime here in Missouri that must be addressed," Parson said. "Violent crime has been a problem in our state long before COVID-19, and we have seen it escalate even more in recent weeks, specifically in our big cities."


The special session comes at a time when the state is dealing with an increase in COVID-19 cases. State Rep. Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, said she was not concerned about lawmakers meeting amid the pandemic and recent spikes in the state.


The Department of Health and Senior Services reported 888 additional coronavirus infections Wednesday, a day after reporting a record 936 cases. There was at least one new case reported for 69 of the state’s 117 local health department jurisdictions, including 10 new cases in Cole County.


The state has tallied 27 new cases in Cole County in the past week and 51 since July 1. Two of those cases are members of the Missouri House staff, Chief Clerk Dana Miller wrote in an email sent Wednesday afternoon to House members and staff.


"We have just been notified that two House employees have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus," Miller wrote. "These employees are currently self-quarantining at home and are not working in the building; however, there is a possibility that direct or indirect exposure to others may have occurred before the employees were tested."


Topics for the session will include witness protections and the admissibility in court of some statements not currently allowed. Lawmakers will also consider 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.


Many of those were discussed last year by the mayors of the state’s four largest cities, but fell to the wayside in the 2020 legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


"Innocent children are being shot and killed way too often," Parson said. "These are the grim numbers. The effects of violent crime across our state are best measured in lives. Innocent lives lost, futures cut short and families hurting."


On July 5 in Columbia, a 38-year-old woman, Tara Knedler, and an 11-year-old girl were killed in what police described as a senseless act of gun violence by a 16-year-old male. Police Chief Geoff Jones, who was at the conference, said he appreciates that discussions have moved on to the Legislature taking action.


"I appreciate that we are doing more than talking in trying to get things done," Jones said. "I appreciate that we are taking a look at protecting witnesses and victims of violent crime and I appreciate the support that the governor showed to law enforcement."


Parson, a former Polk County sheriff and 22-year veteran officer, stayed close to his ties to law enforcement and the law-and-order party line. He told reporters how officers are overtaxed after weeks of protests and said there are currently about 300 open law enforcement positions across the state that need to be filled.


"Police officers all around this state are also hurting," Parson said. "They have been dealing with protests for months. They have been dealing with crime underneath the blanket of peaceful protests, along with the violence that goes on every day in their jobs. If there is ever a time to make sure we give the resources to our officers across the state, now is that time."


Some lawmakers say that in addition to violent crime, issues of bias among police as well as brutality and accountability are just as important, questioning the need for the special session.


Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Chair Rep. Steven Roberts said the only issue worthy of a special session would be to ensure greater accountability among police officers in cases of wrongdoing.


Roberts last week sent Parson a letter calling for a special session on the topic, which asks for an end to qualified immunity, a long-standing court practice that shields police. He is also asking for a statewide ban on chokeholds in the wake of the death of George Floyd and legislation requiring police to intervene when another officer is committing an act of wrongdoing.


"The only issue right now that is worthy of a special session would be police reform," Roberts said.


Other Democrats offering criticism included Parson’s likely rival in November, State Auditor Nicole Galloway.


"Last year, when Missourians pleaded with the Governor for a response to children being murdered by gunfire, he said he had to stay in his lane and instead called a special session about tax breaks for used cars and yachts," she wrote in a news release. "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."


Reisch said she’ll back what Parson is seeking from the General Assembly because of the violence that is hitting close to home, pointing to the July 5 quintuple shooting in Columbia.


"I’m very excited to get back to work, and we need to get this crime in the state of Missouri under control," Reisch said. "We need to get a handle on this immediately."


ppratt@columbiatribune.com