Should Kansas City’s elected officials have a more direct say in the workings of the police department? That was the question last week as residents got their first chance to publicly weigh in on a proposal to follow St. Louis’ lead and take back direct local control of the department.
Those attending the first of three public hearings on the matter Thursday at Oak Park High School were mostly skeptical, citing a general mistrust of City Hall.
“I think we should have the governor appoint the police board,” said William Bowman, speaking of the current system. “If we don’t, it will be just like in the ’30s more or less. I wouldn’t trust nothing coming out of City Hall.”
Gerald Gardner joined Bowman in citing the corruption of the Tom Pendergast era of the 1930s.
“This thing has worked for 70 years without a problem, and history has a way of repeating itself,” he said. “I feel more positive about a police department run under a board that is not affiliated with the city.”
Bill Skaggs, former mayor pro-tem when Mark Funkhouser was mayor, said the city’s experience with that mayor should serve as a warning. Funkhouser probably wouldn’t have hesitated to fire a police chief if there was a disagreement, Skaggs said.
“You only have to have one bad mayor to really mess up a department.”
The hearings are a chance for residents to tell a special commission drawn up by Mayor Sly James what they think of the idea of direct city control of the police department by elected officials. There was another hearing Monday at Ruskin High School.
The third and final hearing will be 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Mohart Multipurpose Center, 3200 Wayne Ave.
Kansas City is the last large city in the country to have its police department essentially under state control. The department is run by a board appointed by the governor and is considered a state agency. It has been operated that way since 1939, as a reaction to the corruption of the Pendergast era.
Supporters of direct city control, like political consultant and 4th Council District resident Steve Glorioso, say it’s only appropriate that voters, via their elected officials, run the department. Opinion polls show that Kansas Citians want local control, he said at the hearing. Such a move could also save the city money as the city-run department can combine services and benefits with other departments.
Opponents, though, have pointed out that the five-member state-appointed board includes the mayor and four Kansas City residents, so it is not run by out-of-towners.
For that reason, it is misleading to frame it as a question of “local control,” said City Councilman Jim Glover.
Glover, who was not at the meeting, said he likes that the current system separates the board from local politics.
“The biggest issue is do you really want to change the structure and what can be gained by changing the structure?” he said. “I have not been advocating a change in the structure.”
Like Glover, some other council members say they are looking to the final report before taking a position. Councilwoman Jan Marcason said she is reserving judgment, as is councilman John Sharp, who is on the mayor’s commission.
The move to change how the department runs picked up steam this year because St. Louis recently succeeded in getting out from under state control. The St. Louis police department made the change about a month ago, after 152 years under the old system.
So far the transition has been smooth, said Maggie Crane, director of communications for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Crane said the new arrangement makes it possible for all city departments to work better together. So when there’s a spike in crime in one neighborhood, other departments can help police by looking for things like cluttered alleys and broken streetlights.
“It’s really about accountability,” Crane said. A mayor is going to be held accountable for crime rates in the city, she said, but under the old system the mayor didn’t have much say in how the department was run.
Several of the group of about 20 attending the first hearing were retired from the Kansas City Police Department and questioned the need to change a system that they say has worked well. If anything, other cities across the country should consider copying the Kansas City arrangement, said Kevin Chrisman, a retired police major. As a police officer, Chrisman said he didn’t have to worry about political interference from the mayor or City Council.
And Rick Neumann, retired Kansas City police detective questioned the assertion by some in favor of a city-run department that a different set-up would save money.
“Until we get some hard numbers as to what money we’re going to save, we don’t know what we’re getting,” he said.
The public hearings are one step in the process. The mayor’s commission may make a recommendation by Nov. 15.