Dave Helling

Police control: It’s time to choose

Updated: 2013-09-01T05:26:36Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

On Sunday, the people of St. Louis will regain full control of their police department for the first time in a century and a half.

And Kansas City will stand alone — the only major city in America without complete responsibility for its most important function.

By some accounts, St. Louis has struggled to implement its shift to local control. The handover had to be delayed, and some department officials have spent most of the summer on the transition process instead of fighting crime.

But those bobbles should not distract Kansas Citians from their own discussion of who runs its police department. As we learned again this week, the strange hybrid system now in place brings its own set of problems.

The Star’s Christine Vendel reported Wednesday on the department’s puzzlement over proceeds from a voter-approved sales tax for police construction projects. It turns out the city is keeping the interest on those tax receipts, as well as holding on to the entire “use tax,” a special levy on some types of sales.

The police would like to get their hands on that cash. City Hall has vaguely demurred, pointing out that releasing the money would probably mean finding cuts in other police spending.

And, the city hints, some in the department have known about the practice all along.

The distrust, of course, runs both ways at 12th and Locust.

Four years ago, the department spent more than $2 million on new police cars without fully involving the City Council. The council, then in the middle of its own budget headaches, complained bitterly.

It isn’t that each side keeps the other in the dark, exactly. More like the deep shade.

This weird relationship is fully the byproduct of the department’s governance structure. Kansas City doesn’t have local police control, of course, but the state-appointed police board — which relies on the city for its money — doesn’t really have complete control either.

Instead, police power here is shared. And when everyone has responsibility, no one does.

So each side protects its prerogatives, hides spending, disputes policy decisions, resists change. Money wasted. Fingers pointed. Crime unaddressed.

You don’t want local police control? Fine. Then let’s have full state control, giving the police their own taxing power, spending systems, personnel policies, purchasing protocols. Take the mayor off the police board.

Or let’s have full local control, like St. Louis. Either way, Kansas Citians deserve to finally know who runs their police department.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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