If Kansas City residents don’t know much about the unique oversight of their police department, the reason may be that the department is run so well, say supporters of the current oversight system.
The state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners has remained free from scandal, said previous Police Board President Karl Zobrist.
But opponents think city officials should have direct control over the police department since the department gets a larger chunk of general fund money than any other department in the city. And city officials need to be able to rein in pensions, which are currently unsustainable, they say.
“What makes Kansas City incapable of overseeing its own police department?” asked City Councilman Ed Ford.
One thing both supporters and opponents agree upon is that residents need to become informed and part of the discussion about the best way to govern the department in the future.
To that end, The Citizens Association, a group of Kansas City government and civic leaders, held a debate last week at the downtown library to delve into the details of different police governance models. Mayor Sly James recently appointed a task force to study the issue, and he wants the task force to issue recommendations later this year.
As it stands, the police department is considered a state agency. The governor appoints four Kansas City residents to sit on the police board with the mayor. Together, they oversee the department’s operations.
Many people think the current system works well and helps insulate the department from political meddling at City Hall. But opponents say it also allows the department to become insulated from the public.
Changing how the department is controlled suddenly gained traction in Kansas City because St. Louis is poised this summer to return to local police control — for the first time since the Civil War. Kansas City has had a state-appointed police board since the Pendergast era of the 1930s.
Once St. Louis makes its conversion, Kansas City will be the only city in the country with a state-appointed police regulating body.
Control of the department is the single biggest issue facing officers right now, said Sgt. Brad Lemon, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said union leaders are keeping an open mind about whether to support oversight by city officials, but he said current police pensions must be protected.
The FOP’s support in this debate will be key. The initiative in St. Louis didn’t move forward until their FOP struck an agreement with a group seeking the change.
The debate is often framed in terms of “state control vs. local control.” But supporters of the current system said at last week’s debate that those terms are misnomers.
“What we have now is local control,” Former Police Chief Jim Corwin said, referring to the city residents and mayor who serve on the police board.
Zobrist said the debate should be called “local political control versus local non-politicial control.”
Corwin said the police board model allowed him to make professional management decisions, and put officers where they were most needed, without having to worry about political interference.
“I didn’t have to worry about a phone call saying you better do this or else,” he said.
But Steve Glorioso, a political consultant who helped run the campaign for St. Louis local control, said politics are everywhere, including the current system.
“It’s just a different political process,” he said. “I’d like to have it closer to home. I’d like to know who’s doing it.”
When crime spikes, Ford gets complaints from residents but he said his ability to take action is limited. He said the current system isolates police from other city departments that need to work together more seamlessly.
“The public is concerned about crime,” he said. “Public safety is more than just the police department.”
Zobrist said he had never received a call from Jefferson City asking him to take any specific action as a board member during his 10 years of service. And he argued that Corwin and current Chief Darryl Forte were better suited to fight crime than city officials.
“They’ve done a better job fighting crime because they’ve been released from political duties,” he said.
An audience member asked why residents would entrust city officials with the police department in light of recent problems with sewers and the controversial fire and ambulance consolidation.
“I think we have on the whole a professionally run government,” Glorioso responded.
If Kansas City police were controlled by city officials, the chief would most likely report to the city manager, Glorioso said. But other options could be considered as well.
The chief could work under a public safety director who oversees police, fire and ambulance services and reports to the mayor. Or the chief could report to a board of people appointed by the mayor, like the Park Board.
But in other cities with mayor-appointed police boards, Zobrist said, those boards tend to be unstable. After each election, the new mayor typically fires all the board members, resulting in a board full of “newbies,” he said.
Glorioso said polling has shown that Kansas Citians want “local control,” but Corwin said the question itself is unfair because he believes Kansas Citians already have local control.
“The word needs to get out ... so the population can actually be educated when they cast that vote rather than something just sounding good.”
A change in the governance of the police department would require action by legislators or a statewide ballot initiative.
For more information about this debate, go to the Citizens Association website atwww.citizensassociation.com, click on Issues and then The Citizens Project.