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Keep KC police under state control, committee says in close vote

Updated: 2013-11-12T04:10:39Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

A plan to place control of Kansas City’s Police Department fully in the hands of locally elected officials suffered a significant setback Monday when a committee studying the issue narrowly recommended continued state supervision of the department.

After weeks of study, the blue ribbon police governance committee — established by Mayor Sly James — endorsed a plan that calls for expanding the Board of Police Commissioners, from its current four appointed members to six. Those commissioners, though, still would be picked by Missouri’s governor.

The group specifically rejected a plan to give the mayor, who would maintain automatic membership on the board, full responsibility for appointing the police board.

The vote was 13 for state control to 12 for local supervision. Five members of the committee were absent and did not vote.

A third option — maintaining the current system with just four state-appointed commissioners — got no votes.

Police representatives on the committee have strenuously opposed full local control for weeks and repeated their concerns Monday. All supported the alternative that passed.

“There is a certain amount of victory for the rank and file,” committee member Brad Lemon of the Fraternal Order of Police said after the vote.

The committee’s recommendation isn’t binding. It now goes to James and the Kansas City Council, which can endorse it, reject it or do nothing. But any change in the department’s governance must be approved eventually by either the Missouri General Assembly or the state’s voters. Monday’s vote makes it far less likely that either would consider a local-control option any time soon, supporters admitted.

The vote was “disappointing,” said City Councilman Ed Ford, who supported local control. “I’m not sure anyone changed their minds during the process.”

Governance of the Kansas City Police Department has been an issue for years. Supporters say local control would save money and increase police accountability. Opponents say it would unnecessarily inject politics into police work.

“Tonight’s vote to make legislative changes to state control clearly shows that our community does not support the status quo with regard to police department governance,” Mayor Sly James said in a statement.

“Now that we, as a community, have determined we’re ready to make changes to the current governance structure, I look forward to working with my colleagues on the City Council and in the police department, as well as the Missouri General Assembly, to develop a structure that works for everyone.”

Kansas City’s police force was placed under state control in the late 1930s after a series of problems with corruption. St. Louis used a similar system until this year. But in 2012 — after a petition drive initiated by millionaire businessman Rex Sinquefield — Missouri voters agreed to return police control in St. Louis to locally elected officials.

The transition was finished late last summer, leaving Kansas City as the only major American city without full authority for its police force.

But supporters of the state-appointment model said Monday there was little evidence of a need for a drastic change in how the department is run here.

“The system of state control has worked well,” said City Councilman John Sharp, who voted against the local-control option. “I’m certainly not satisfied with our crime rates in Kansas City, but … I think the department’s on the right track.”

Supporters of the expanded state-appointed board recommended picking commissioners from each of the Police Department’s six divisions — East Patrol would have its own representative, for example, as would the other divisions. Candidates would submit their qualifications directly to the governor. The committee recommended that the expanded board meet more frequently.

Pat McInerney, a former member of the police board, said he was not overly surprised by the outcome of the vote.

“It was very close,” he said. “A pretty clear rejection of the status quo.”

The voting process initially confused some members of the committee, but no one challenged the narrow tally once the roll call ended.

Ford said work for local control would continue.

“It’s a process,” he said. “I think this is probably going to be a setback, but the day will come, whether it’s in 2015 or 2018, we’ll have local control.”

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

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