A proposed initiative petition that would allow local control of Kansas City’s Police Department was withdrawn Wednesday — then quickly replaced — after The Star asked questions about the draft of the proposal.
The original petition, filed earlier this month by Jefferson City attorney Marc Ellinger, proposed a statewide vote in 2018 on a constitutional amendment allowing Kansas City’s government to fully control operations of its Police Department.
But the specific language of the petition said voters would be asked to change state law, not the state’s constitution, to allow local control.
The difference is important. Changing Missouri’s constitution by petition requires roughly 160,000 valid signatures and a statewide vote of the people. Changing a state law requires fewer than 100,000 signatures and a statewide vote.
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Additionally, constitutional amendments can’t be changed by the state legislature, while statutes passed by the people can be amended or repealed by lawmakers.
This week, The Star asked the secretary of state’s office, and petitioners, to clarify the language of the original petition. On Wednesday, the document disappeared from the secretary of state’s website, replaced by a new draft asking for a change in state law, not the Missouri Constitution, that would permit local control of police in Kansas City.
Ellinger did not return phone calls seeking comment, but an official in the secretary of state’s office confirmed the original petition was withdrawn and a new one put in its place.
The proposed petition is believed to have the backing of St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield, who pushed a 2012 statewide petition on local of control the Police Department in St. Louis. That measure passed, and St. Louis took control of its department the next year.
That left Kansas City as the only city in America whose police department is supervised by a state-appointed governing board, not by city government.
The proposed petition — now open for public comment — would prohibit the city from firing any officers if it takes control and require a “separate division” for police oversight. It also sets up a transition mechanism for transferring responsibilities from the five-member police board to locally elected control.
Police Department leadership is expected to resist local control if the petition makes it to the 2018 ballot.
“If you look at St. Louis, they were sold a bill of goods, the officers were,” Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté said this week. “When it went under local control, it did not help the officers a whole lot. I don’t want the same thing to happen to Kansas City.”
But opinions among regular officers may be changing. They’ve long resisted supervision by city officials, but Fraternal Order of Police president Brad Lemon suggested his members are rethinking the arrangement.
“What we are currently operating under hasn’t done the rank and file any good in the last 10 years,” he said. “Part of where we are today is because the city didn’t have control.”
City officials may be lukewarm if the proposal ever makes it to the ballot.
Mayor Sly James appointed a task force in 2013 to consider placing the Kansas City Police Department in the hands of locally elected officials. But after months of meetings and study, the committee voted narrowly, by one vote, to retain state control.
City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said Tuesday she thought any major governance change like this should not be driven by one wealthy businessman from St. Louis.
“There is a strong desire for the City Council to have more input on how the Police Department functions,” Canaday said, but she added this type of switch may not be the solution.
City Councilwoman Heather Hall, who is married to a Kansas City police officer, also said she would need more information about how the governance and leadership of the Police Department would work, and how this change would affect the city’s police officers.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Hall said about the proposal.
The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed petition. It must be approved for circulation by the secretary of state before signatures can be gathered to place the matter before Missouri voters in 2018.
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.