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At a time of mass protests against police violence — where calls to increase officer accountability and even defund police departments are being amplified across the country — Kansas City, Mo., stands out as the only major U.S. city without local control of its police department.
It’s a decades-old arrangement that, in addition to creating a crisis of democracy, local organizer Lora McDonald likens to taxation without representation.
“As a city, unless we have more population than the whole rest of the state of eligible voters, we can never have power over our police department because we cannot unseat the governor,” said McDonald, who is the executive director of faith-based advocacy group Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality (MORE2). “… We truly do not have a democracy with policing here in Kansas City.”
Instead, a Board of Police Commissioners made up of four members appointed by the Missouri governor and the Kansas City mayor, oversees a department with nearly 2,000 employees and a newly adopted budget of $273 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
With critical eyes turned toward the Kansas City Police Department and its history of violence against Black residents, local advocates believe that regaining local control is necessary for reform and the reimagining of the entire public safety system.
“We want to make sure that we have a police department that is reflective of what the community wants,” said City Council Member Melissa Robinson, who represents the Third District on Kansas City’s East Side. Robinson introduced a bill last year to study the prospect of local control.
“Our residents have the right to be able to design and to be able to provide feedback and be able to direct how policing is done in their communities,” she added.
Local Police & Corrupt Politicians — The Pendergast Years
Despite its unusual governance structure, state control of the Kansas City Police Department is as old as the agency itself. In 1932, control was transferred to local officials after lobbying from Tom Pendergast, a mob boss who leveraged power and control in Kansas City at the time. What resulted was a police department rife with corruption.
“They were ignoring gambling laws, the enforcement of gambling laws, liquor laws, prostitution,” said Jeremy Drouin, a historian at the Missouri Valley Special Collections. “Pendergast was able to really control the police department.”
To stymie the rampant local corruption, then-Missouri Gov. Lloyd Stark returned control of the Kansas City Police Department back to the state in 1939.
“Local politicians used police for corruption,” said Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “The best way to eliminate that problem was to wrestle police department control away from local politicians.”
‘Who’s going to answer for that?’
When Robinson began holding meetings with her constituents shortly after her election to the City Council, addressing crime and violence in the most heavily policed district in the city became a focal point. The discussions birthed the idea of a Citizen’s Review Board aimed at building trust between the community and the police department.
“In order to be accountable for that measure, … local control would be necessary or we would need to work in partnership with the police commission,” Robinson said.
Protesters have echoed similar demands in cases of police misconduct. Currently, the Office of Community Complaints, under the authority of the Board of Police Commissioners, handles complaints filed against police officers. The process for reviewing a complaint is then coordinated between that office, the KCPD Internal Affairs Unit and the police commissioners until a recommendation is reached.
Earlier this month, following the first waves of protests against police violence, Mayor Quinton Lucas announced new oversight measures of the KCPD that included a commitment to having an outside agency, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, review police shooting incidents.
But advocates for local control, including organizations like MORE2, the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the local NAACP chapter, are critical of the current structure, citing issues with oversight, accountability and transparency. Some point to how the current governance structure makes it so that Kansas City residents have no say over who gets appointed to the Board of Police Commissioners aside from electing the mayor.
“If I know if I’m a worker who’s willing to mess up on my job, do wrong, do whatever, or just not fully do my job right and well, and I know my boss is away, what kind of a worker am I?” McDonald said. “It’s just basic workplace stuff. There’s no one watching what’s happening here locally.”
The City Council officially adopted Robinson’s resolution in February, which established the creation of the Public Safety Study Group. Composed of five members appointed by the mayor, including Robinson, the group will study the pros and cons of current state control over the KCPD; the potential effects of returning to local control; and current gun violence prevention efforts in the city. The group held its first meeting this week, and the deadline for its final report in late September.
Robinson said she received positive responses from residents on local control.
“People want to be able to connect to the decisions that impact their everyday life,” Robinson said.
She said it’s time for local officials to be accountable for the police department, particularly when it comes to allocating resources. Public safety funding — much of which is taken up by the police department — is the largest expense in the city’s general fund: nearly $487 million.
For comparison, the new approved budget for Neighborhood and Housing Services is $80.9 million.
“We can no longer as a City Council sit back and point to each other in terms of saying, ‘Oh, well, when we look at the crime and violence, it’s the police department’s fault,’” Robinson said. “We’ve given them all of the funding. We can no longer sit back and be Daddy Warbucks and say, ‘OK, we’re going to give you everything that you need in order to be successful, funding-wise.”
Lots of ‘Foot Dragging’
This is not the first time Kansas City has considered local control of the KCPD. In 1968 — the year local race riots resulted in the police killings of six Black people, hundreds of injuries, and millions in property damage — a study looking into the root causes of the riots listed local control of the police department as its No. 1 recommendation.
The city did not pursue the issue further. Four decades later, Kansas City had the chance to join St. Louis and get local control of its police department. Kansas City declined the offer; St. Louis went on to win local control in 2012.
Another opportunity presented itself in 2013: A committee established by Mayor Sly James to study the issue rejected a plan that would have established local control. It failed by one vote in James’ committee.
“There’s been a lot of studies, there’s been a lot of talks and forums, but not any action toward local control,” Drouin said. “And I think one of the reasons is, there’s been a lot of foot dragging with our city government over the decades to move to local control.”
In a statement to The Beacon, Mayor Quinton Lucas said he supports local control of the police department, but adds that local control itself will not make the community safer or combat violent crime.
“As mayor, I remain focused on actions we can take today to build police-community relations and to create a better Kansas City for all,” the statement reads.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith recently said in a radio interview that the city already has local control, because the board’s members are city residents.
Why the constant reluctance to change? Drouin points to a fear that changing the structure may not have a significant impact on violent crime; St. Louis, for example, still has a high homicide rate despite transferring to local control in 2013.
“Kansas City, at times in its history, has had pretty high crime rates, pretty high murder rates,” Drouin said. “If you move to local control, and those numbers don’t improve, it reflects very poorly on the local government.”
A Case Study in St. Louis
For St. Louis organizer John Chasnoff, the campaign for local control of the police department was driven by the feeling that the current structure was not responsive to the needs of the local community and failed to provide true, independent citizen control over the police.
“Members had to be picked from the local community, but there was no line of accountability that led back to the people,” said Chasnoff, who worked on the campaign with the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, a grassroots organization in St. Louis. “It led off to Jefferson City and the governor who had appointed four out of the five members. So we found that it was a fairly unresponsive system.”
If Kansas City were to obtain local control, officials could follow the footsteps of St. Louis and regain local control via statewide ballot measure. Kansas City could also regain local governance through a bill passed in the Missouri state legislature.
Chasnoff said the legislative process — which local advocates pursued before the ballot initiative — was more transparent.
“It’s a more open and deliberative process,” Chasnoff said. “It’s not just ‘powers that be’ sitting in a room and writing the details of what’s gonna be on the ballot initiative.”
‘All the stars are aligned’
Advocates for local control caution that reforming an 80-year-old governance system is less a panacea for police violence in Kansas City, but rather a step toward more reform. St. Louis, for instance, continues to struggle with police violence; mistrust between the department and the city’s Black residents; and a violent crime rate that has budged little since transferring to local control.
“I don’t see local control as, actually, the win,” said Lora McDonald with MORE2. “The win is the changes that impact the people on the ground. Local control is just like our means to getting to real reform and policing in our city.”
Chasnoff noted that local control over the police department is crucial to future reforms like body camera policy. Both Kansas City and St. Louis recently announced the adoption of body cameras for their officers. Now that the city oversees the department, residents like Chasnoff can influence the policies that will shape the usage of body cameras.
“Under state control, the department would write policies and we’d have a very hard time having input on those,” Chasnoff said. “We’re hoping to have much more input on the outcome of the body camera issue here in St. Louis than we ever could have had before.”
Renewed calls for local control are giving organizers like McDonald hope that things will truly change.
“Most people are still telling us it’ll never happen,” McDonald said. “And I’m telling you: All the stars are aligned.”
Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.