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• What would this change look like and mean for Kansas City residents? 

For years, as part of their demand for increased police accountability, activists have demanded local control of the Kansas City Police Department. It looks as though all those years of demands may potentially payoff.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has introduced an ordinance to include a ballot question in the November election that will allow Kansas City residents to vote on whether or not they favor moving KCPD from state to local control.

If passed, the ballot issue will only let the Missouri General Assembly know that the citizens of Kansas City feel moving the KCPD from state to local control is important. Any “legal” action to change the control structure of KCPD must first begin with the General Assembly.

Here is the wording for the ballot issue as proposed by Mayor Lucas on June 25:

“Shall the City of Kansas City, Missouri establish as a City legislative priority in the Missouri General Assembly the pursuit of a state legislative or referendum action that will return Mayor and City Council-led local control to the Kansas City Police Department rather than the current control of the Kansas City Police Department by a committee comprised of four members appointed by the Governor of Missouri and an additional position held by the Mayor of Kansas City?”

If approved, the General Assembly would possibly take up the issue of the control of the KCPD during their 2021 session.

However, even getting the issue on the ballot still isn’t assured. The Kansas City Council must first vote in favor of the mayor’s proposal to put the questions on the November ballot. So, Kansas City residents shouldn’t get too excited yet; local control of their police department is still several approval steps away.

Current KCPD Structure

In its current state-controlled structure, KCPD is overseen by a Board of Police Commissioners who are appointed by the governor to make policy decisions about the department. The five-member board has four members, all Kansas City residents, who are appointed by Gov. Mike Parson, and the fifth seat is held by the mayor. With input from the police chief, the commissioners set policies for the department.

Kansas City’s police department was originally established under the current state-control model, but in 1932, notoriously corrupt KC political boss Tom Pendergast convinced the city council to bring the department under local control. Under the city’s control, corruption within the department expanded so much that 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 briberies 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.

If the ballot issue passes and legislative action is taken for local control, KCPD might be overseen by city council and the mayor or by a police board that city council or the mayor will appoint. Under this structure, if Kansas City residents do not approve of the way their elected officials are overseeing the police department, they can more easily hold them accountable and more easily vote them out of office. 

“We expect to have a voice in the public institutions that are funded with tax dollars,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, about control of the police department. The Urban League, the NAACP and MORE2 held a joint press conference in June, during which they called for a return to local control of KCPD.

St. Louis Local Control Issues

Also upset by their limited control of their police department, in 2013, St. Louis was able to gain local control. But, now, after several years, some citizens say their concerns about their police department have increased, instead of decreased.

Last year, St. Louis 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, Carter said the St. Louis Police Department is now less responsive and “out of control and the mayor and other leaders in the community have been unable to control them.”

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.”

To prevent the dissatisfaction St. Louis is seeing after gaining local control, KC Councilwoman Melissa Robinson introduced a resolution last year calling for an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of local control. A local committee was appointed to look into the issue further.

Some individuals expressed concern that Mayor Lucas moved to take the issue to the ballot before hearing back from the local committee. Lucas said the committee will continue their work with a report expected back before the ballot vote.

Mayor Lucas seems to have already made up his mind on the issue.

“Decisions about the future of public safety in our community should be in the hands of our voters,” Lucas said in a press release. “This is one of many steps we’re taking to create a better and more accountable city government, improve community relations and build the best police department for our community and our officers.”

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

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