Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté broke his silence Tuesday on his view of police governance by saying the department’s current system of being run by a five-member state board best meets the community’s needs.
By CHRISTINE VENDEL and LYNN HORSLEY
The Kansas City Star
In a lengthy essay posted on his blog, Forté attacked many of the arguments others have cited for handing control of the Police Department to the city — a transfer that happened in St. Louis over the weekend and left Kansas City as the only large city in the nation under state control.
The Kansas City department is run by the Board of Police Commissioners, which is composed of the mayor and four local residents appointed by the governor. The state-appointed board was established in 1939 as a reaction to the corruption of the Tom Pendergast era.
A commission appointed by Mayor Sly James has been meeting to make a recommendation on future governance of the department. James said through a spokeswoman Tuesday evening that he had not seen the chief’s blog post and would need time to digest it before commenting.
Forté wrote that, although the debate has been cast as “state control” versus “local control,” the issue is really city control of the department, not local control.
“We are already under local control,” he wrote. “We’re shielded from political corruption, we use taxpayer dollars in the most efficient way possible and we are responsive to the community.”
Although critics of the current arrangement say Kansas City needs to change along with the rest of the country, Forté said being “uniquely governed is not a bad thing.”
His peers are envious, he said, of the way the Kansas City Police Department operates.
“Every election time, their organizations go into limbo,” he said. “The whole direction of their department could change with the whims” of newly elected politicians.
Kansas City police officials can make policing decisions based on data and community input, he said, “not where a council member requests officers to be for personal or political reasons.”
Crime is a primary topic for politicians, and they could not help but interfere, Forté said.
“I’ve seen where there’s been a spike in crime where politicians demand we do something, whether it’s effective or not,” he said of his nearly 30-year police career. “‘We’ve got to make people feel better,’ they say, and then you get off track.”
Supporters of city control have said it would save the city money, but Forté disagrees. He said if city staff for human resources or information technology could absorb the department’s workload for its 2,000 employees, then “they have too many people. The same number of total positions will be required to support the combined number of employees.”
A shift to city control actually would cost the city more, Forté said. He wrote that the state now absorbs $1 million annually from lawsuits against the department that are handled by the state’s Legal Defense Fund. In addition, the city would have to pay for legal services now provided by the Missouri attorney general’s office.
Supporters of city control say it’s unfair that the city should pay for the Police Department’s operations yet not have a say in how the money is spent, Forté wrote. But all city departments allocate their own budgets based on what they are given from the city, and “the police are no exception,” he said.
Previous Police Chief Jim Corwin made no secret of his opposition to city control of the department, but Forté kept his opinion to himself until Tuesday.
Forté said he had kept an open mind on the topic, “but given what I’ve learned and my extensive experience, I now think it’s time I voice my opinion.” He said he also wanted to let his officers know where he stood on the issue.
“I fully believe we’re on the right track to prevent crime, not just respond to it,” he told The Star. “I fear the momentum might be lost with a transition to a different governance structure.”
He added that he probably would not have been able to voice his opposition to city control if the department were under city control.
He concluded his blog post by saying, “Our department’s model of governance should be perpetuated for generations to come.”
When James appointed his Blue Ribbon task force on police governance in March, he said he hoped for formal recommendations by October, but it’s doubtful the group will meet that deadline.
Members of the task force have said they want to know about possible financial savings to the department from city consolidation, and that information has not been made available. The task force also has asked to hear from St. Louis officials on how that transition is occurring.
Task force co-chairman Pat McInerney, a former police board president, said Tuesday night that he had not yet seen the chief’s blog post. But he said the commission is composed of open-minded members who are working well together to come up with a governance structure that works for Kansas City.
He said the group will hold three public hearings soon, and he expects it to complete its work by the end of the year.
St. Louis ended 152 years of state control Sunday. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, officials there argued that state control often was “cumbersome, inefficient and an impediment to political accountability.”
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and his staff said mayors there were held accountable for crime in that city without having the power to address it or to hold the department accountable. Nor could they work to coordinate all city government around policing.
St. Louis voters overwhelmingly supported a return to local control in a nonbinding referendum a few years ago. St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield then helped fund a statewide ballot measure in November 2012 to restore St. Louis to local control, and that issue passed.
But many people have said St. Louis’ problems with its state police board are not present in Kansas City, and many Kansas City residents believe the current system works well here and doesn’t warrant a change.