Yael T. Abouhalkah

Police enjoy a big victory for the status quo in KC

Updated: 2013-11-21T00:22:43Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Brad Lemon won.

That’s the very short conclusion of what happened to potential local control of the Kansas City Police Department earlier this month.

Lemon, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, was on the blue-ribbon commission that Mayor Sly James named this year to study whether it was time to get rid of state control of the agency. Several other officers and former police commissioners also were on the panel.

James hoped that, after months of studying, the full committee would embrace local accountability through elected officials and residents. That certainly would have been the desired outcome.

But Lemon and the other police supporters were among the 13 members who backed keeping state control vs. the 12 who opted for local control.

After winding up on the losing side, James said he would keep working to improve the department and enhance cooperation among city and police officials. Those are the right goals.

In addition, a number of top police officials I met with last week indicated they were eager to move on from this matter (more on that in a moment).

Still, the commission’s decision leaves Kansas City as the only city in the nation without direct control through elected representatives and appointed public officials of the police force.

• James has no mandate to ask Missouri legislators to change the situation in which the governor appoints four people to nominally oversee the department; the mayor is the fifth member.

• Parts of the business community — which have strongly fought behind the scenes to retain state control — will be able to say there’s no need to change the current situation.

• Brave talk by some local control proponents of mounting a successful statewide initiative on the issue — as St. Louis did in 2012 with the help of multimillionaire Rex Sinquefeld — is a nonstarter given the cost of that approach.

On a more positive note, the FOP and top members of the police staff have worked out progressive agreements this year.

They signed off on a unified health care plan with City Hall, a program that is supposed to take effect next May and would save taxpayer funds while providing strong medical coverage.

The police also backed needed changes in the pension systems for officers and for civilian police personnel. The plan should reduce costs to taxpayers and ensure solid retirement funds into the future.

Finally, at the invitation of Capt. Dan Haley, I spoke last week with about 20 members of the force at a two-hour luncheon.

During a cordial but sometimes blunt question-and-answer session, some officers rejected the perception that the department won’t change its ways. They spoke of being more transparent compared to the past. They cited the lack of scandals affecting the agency, as has happened in other cities.

They also reiterated their contention that the department already provides great services in fleet maintenance, human resources, information technology and other areas.

I understand a lot of those points. I also still don’t fully see all these topics the same way the police do. For instance, I hope James, City Hall and the police will continue to try to reduce duplication of services and cut costs. And that could mean letting the police lead the way.

The retention of state control is an important milestone for the Police Department. But as the officers know, they face many challenges in reducing the city’s high crime rate. They will need the city’s help to do that, especially at budget time.

A police/City Hall partnership would best serve the needs of Kansas Citians.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah.

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