As unrest continues across the nation, the demand from local protestors for change within the Kansas City Police Department continues to mount. Not only are they demanding procedural changes, they’re also demanding changes in the department’s structure.
The current administrative structure of KCPD has the Chief reporting to and under the control of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners who are appointed by the governor. To really effect change in the department, protestors says the administrative structure of the department must allow for more direct local control.
Kansas City’s police department was originally established under the current state control model, but in 1932, then KC Mayor Tom Pendergast convinced the city council to bring the department under local control. Under the notoriously corrupt mayor’s rule, it’s not surprising that the police department also proved to be corrupt. Just six years later, then Gov. Lloyd Stark returned the police department to the state control structure that exists today.
Although the state control model helped stop bribery within the police force, Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City said state control is not without its problems. Having a commission appointed by a governor who is elected in a statewide race diminishes the power of local residents to control appointments to the commission and to ultimately control the policies and practices of the department that polices them.
“Especially when you have a governor whose politics and views may not be the same as people in Kansas City, you run into potential problems,” Novak said.
In its current structure, the five-member Board of Police commissioners has four members, all Kansas City residents, who are appointed by Gov. Mike Parson. The fifth seat on the commission is held by the Kansas City mayor. With input from the police chief, the commissioners set policies for the department.
Across the state and country, there are a variety of other local control structures for overseeing police departments. Sometimes, a police board is appointed by the mayor, with or without the approval of the city council. In other instances, there may not be a police commission, with the mayor and city council having direct control over approving the department’s policies and procedures.
Under local control structures, if citizens do not approve of the way their elected officials are overseeing the police department, they can vote them out of office; a much easier task than voting a governor out of office.
Activists and experts say local control gives citizens more of a say since they not only elect the city council, but can more easily hold them accountable.
“We expect to have a voice in the public institutions that are funded with tax dollars,” Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City said in a press conference on June 3. Also joining ULGKC in the call are the Metro Organization for Racial Economic Equity (MORE2) and the Kansas City branch of the NAACP.
As a response to demands from activists, the city council decided to take a serious look at what local control of KCPD would look like. Last year, Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson introduced a resolution calling for an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of returning the police department to local control.
Recently, the city council voted in favor of the resolution and established a Public Safety Study Group to look at, and report back on, local versus state control of KCPD. The study group is also looking at a recommendation for reducing gun violence in Kansas City and will report back on both by September 30.
Members of the study group include former KCPD Police Chief Jim Corwin, Councilmembers Melissa Robinson and Teresa Loar, attorney Melesa Johnson and Asst. Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jared Bustamante.
In 2013, after 150 years of state control, St. Louis gained local control of its police. Upset by their lack of control, St. Louis residents secured enough signatures to put the issue on a ballot and it passed. Five years in, concerns about their police department have increased, instead of decreased, for some.
Last year, Rep. Chris Carter introduced a bill to return control of the St. Louis police department to a governor-appointed board of police commissioners.
In a press release announcing the bill, Carter said the St. Louis Police Department is “out of control and the mayor and other leaders in the community have been unable to control them.” He also expressed concern about the disparity in police coverage and resources between North St. Louis, which he represents, and the more affluent south side.
“We feel the police department is now less responsive because they no longer answer to anyone, a committee, the state legislature, or the governor,” Carter said in the release.
But, Novak said many cities have varying degrees of success when it comes to police control. “If (citizens) want or if they feel that it would be better to have more control over the police, then they probably deserve that,” said Novak, “and 18,000 other departments do it that way.”