Update (May 2, 2023): The Missouri Senate voted to confirm Thomas Whittaker to the Board of Police Commissioners on April 27. His term will expire in March 2027.
A week after Kansas City residents gathered outside Kansas City Police Department headquarters to protest the department’s response to the April 13 shooting of 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager, state politicians in Jefferson City are preparing to confirm a nominee to one of KCPD’s most powerful positions.
In early April, Gov. Mike Parson nominated Thomas Whittaker, the executive vice president and chief legal officer at construction company J.E. Dunn, to become the fifth member of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Under the current system that dates back to the Civil War, KCPD is governed by a state-appointed police board. As a police commissioner, Whittaker would help make important decisions for KCPD, such as the hiring of a police chief and how to spend the department’s budget.
Kansas City is the nation’s only major city whose police department is governed by a state-appointed board. In other cities, that duty falls to locally elected officials, like mayors and city councils, or to people responsible to them, such as city managers.
Missouri lawmakers are considering legislation to return the St. Louis Police Department to a state-appointed police board. The state’s voters approved local control in St. Louis in 2012.
Despite overseeing KCPD’s $280.7 million budget and making important decisions about the policies of an armed police force, members of the state-appointed board remain relatively unknown to many people in Kansas City.
The Beacon requested an interview with each of the police board members for a short profile introducing them to Kansas City readers. Commissioner Cathy Dean and Mayor Quinton Lucas — who automatically gets a seat on the board as a function of his office — agreed. Dawn Cramer and Mark Tolbert said they were too busy to participate, though Tolbert pointed toward some online biographical information that he thought would be helpful.
Tolbert is the president and longest-serving member of the police board, having been appointed in 2017. His four-year term expired almost a year and a half ago, but he will continue to serve as police commissioner until he resigns or the governor nominates a replacement.
A pastor at Victorious Life Church, Tolbert was nominated by then-Gov. Eric Greitens. He has been president of the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Greater Kansas City and he founded the Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy, a charter school.
During his term, Tolbert and Commissioner Cathy Dean have pushed the department to address 911 response times. Dean said that this concern hits especially close to home for Tolbert, whose brother died trying to call 911.
“It’s terrible,” Dean said. “He feels it personally and obviously his brother’s wife does too.”
When he was appointed, some people applauded Tolbert’s community ties and said they hoped he would bring a new perspective to the board.
But after more than six years, some community leaders have become critics.
“He’s been a huge disappointment,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
Grant pointed to two moments that left her disappointed with Tolbert’s leadership.
First, she said, he never took a public stand on former Police Chief Rick Smith amid public outcry and calls for his resignation from multiple civil rights and faith-based groups.
Second, Tolbert failed to provide the public with transparency and was “disingenuous” through the recent community engagement process to select a new police chief, Grant said.
“I don’t think he places any value on what the community thinks,” she said.
Grant said he has ignored “the desires and wishes” of the African American community. “I have absolutely no respect for the man.”
Dean joined the police board as a commissioner after she was appointed by Parson in 2019. She previously served as secretary and attorney to the board from 1989 until 1994. She told The Beacon she hadn’t given much thought to becoming a commissioner until Parson asked her.
As a commissioner and vice president of the board, Dean rarely votes “no” on policies and procedures brought to the board.
“I want Kansas City to be a safe community, so I work to help the department do that,” Dean said. “I want a police force that shows respect and treats people with dignity in all aspects.”
Raised in Fulton, Missouri, Dean was a practicing attorney at Kansas City’s Polsinelli Law Firm for nearly three decades. Along with serving on state and city boards, she has been named to the Missouri Bar’s Board of Governors and is a past president of the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City.
Dean said her primary channel for feedback from the community has been the public comment period during monthly police board meetings.
“I have met many community members as a result of those comments at the meetings and then have met with them individually after that, sometimes several times,” she said. “The people who come to the meetings and express an interest are the ones that I find very helpful.”
During her term, she hopes to not only reduce crime, but also work more closely with the Kansas City Council to build a more collaborative relationship.
Dean serves on the police board’s controversial litigation subcommittee, which meets secretly with the board’s attorneys to discuss lawsuits. Those include a consequential legal action that the police board filed against the city in 2021, when City Council members attempted to divert a small percentage of KCPD’s budget into a special fund to be used for community policing and crime prevention.
“When somebody takes your money away, that causes a problem, and then it caused hard feelings when we had to sue them,” Dean said, referring to the 2021 lawsuit, in which a judge ruled in the police board’s favor.
The police board is also suing Kansas City over its general revenue calculations in a lawsuit that some advocates believe has the potential to bankrupt the city and slow development to a halt.
“We’re trying very hard to have a good working relationship with the city, particularly on issues of budget,” Dean said.
Cramer is the most recently appointed member of the police board, nominated by Parson in 2021. She is the vice president of Cramer Capital Management, a company she started with her husband when they moved to Kansas City from Dallas.
Two weeks after her appointment, she faced controversy after it was revealed by KCUR that she had falsely claimed to have completed a Ph.D. program at Klemmer University. Klemmer is a for-profit company that offers corporate trainings and seminars.
Cramer has served on several local boards, including the Clay County Domestic Violence Board, the Heartland Foundation and the Northland Shepherd’s Center.
On the police board, Cramer serves with Dean on the litigation subcommittee. She typically votes “yes” when commissioners are asked to approve policies and other actions.
During Tuesday morning’s police board meeting, Cramer expressed her condolences to Yarl and his family and shared some personal information.
“My heart goes out to Ralph and his family. I can’t imagine — I have teenage boys that went to Staley (High School) as well … That could be my kid, that could be my dad, the 84-year-old,” she said.
Cramer added, “I am observing my dad getting a little dementia, and one thing that I know we have done as all of his children is we’ve taken all of the guns out of the house, just in case… It’s something that as a community we need to be aware of.”
Mayor Quinton Lucas
Kansas City’s mayor always serves as the fifth and only elected member of the police board. And since at least 1896, there have always been tensions among the city’s mayor and the other four governor appointees on the board.
Throughout his first term, Mayor Quinton Lucas has often been the sole dissenting vote on police board decisions.
“I think the system is set up for that,” Lucas said. “It’s four people who have a fundamentally different amount of information on the city and aren’t actually sworn in to think of the interests of the people of Kansas City, which I’m sworn to do, but instead the best interests of the department.”
The result, he said, is that the other governor appointees tend to “rubber stamp” decisions that have already been made by the department or the police chief, rather than taking a critical eye to major governing decisions. And as the sole elected representative, Lucas is their only opposition on the board. Also, he said, the appointed commissioners aren’t as easy for the public to approach.
“I think they’re all perfectly fine people, but what that ends up doing … is to put the pressure on everyone else to come to us to share,” Lucas said. “You have to come to a board meeting, you have to find the email address … you have to go through all of those steps.”
Reflecting on his first term as mayor, Lucas said that his position on the police board is often the darkest part of his job. That was especially the case after the city was roiled by protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, and as community displeasure with the department and its leadership increased in the months after that.
“It has been one of the hardest experiences that I’ve had, in the human sense,” Lucas said. “It was hard for me to go there at certain points, particularly in 2020 and 2021. I did not think we were being authentic with the people of our city.”
He recalled hearing comments and speeches from the board that he felt reflected a vitriolic and politically divisive attitude towards policing and the people of Kansas City.
Lucas is the only current police commissioner to vocally call for the city, not the state, to govern KCPD.
“It’s hard to wake up and want to make a difference and go somewhere and know that you won’t,” Lucas said. “This (experience) is something I would absolutely never repeat in my life. It’s why I care so much about a better system because this is not good for anybody — our officers, our people, even our department.”
Nominee: Thomas Whittaker
If the Missouri Senate votes to confirm Whittaker, he will take the fifth seat on the police board, replacing Don Wagner, who retired at the end of 2022 after five years on the board.
Whittaker works as the executive vice president and chief legal officer for J.E. Dunn, and he serves on the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission’s board of directors.
During his time at J.E. Dunn, Whittaker was involved in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Hobby Lobby in the high-profile case regarding health insurance coverage of certain birth control and Plan B pills. Paying for employees’ birth control, the brief said, violated the religious beliefs of J.E. Dunn’s owners.
Both Lucas and Dean said they look forward to working with Whittaker.
“I think my position on the existence of the board is clear … But, I’ve got to have hope,” Lucas said. “I look forward to working with him. He’s a person who’s still very active in business, wonderful reputation in the community. And I would hope that he will bring that here to the board.”
“I would hope to accomplish whatever the chief needs and support her and her executive team,” Whittaker told The Beacon after Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t know what that is today, so I’m looking forward to learning about that. I think the board’s objective is to provide a safe community here.”
The Missouri Senate’s committee on gubernatorial appointments is expected to hear from Whittaker at a hearing on April 26. Pending members’ approval, the full Senate will vote on his confirmation in the coming weeks.
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