Dave Helling | Lawsuit highlights friction between police, politics

Dave Helling
Dave Helling

Politics is a messy business — until you actually want something from government, a lesson Kansas City’s Police Department is learning this spring.

In a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month, Kansas City’s Fraternal Order of Police claims city officials illegally “politicked” when they persuaded the department’s state-appointed governing board to sign up for the city’s health insurance plan.

The deal “is unconstitutional, unlawful, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, and involves an abuse of discretion,” the lawsuit contends.

Maybe. Lawyers and judges will decide if City Hall broke any rules when it threatened to withhold police raises unless the department joined the city’s plan.

But let’s be clear: The FOP is in court because it has nowhere else to go. The Police Department’s decades-old fetish against anything “political” has rendered it powerless to get anything more than what it’s handed by the police board


by City Hall.

That the police fear all things political is obvious. “The Board/Departmentis intended to be free from the influence of City politics,” the FOP lawsuit stated.

But that’s only half right. The state controls Kansas City’s police department to protect the police from politics —

but also to protect politics from the police


Yes, Tom Pendergast was corrupt in the 1930s, but so were the officers enforcing his rule and taking his graft. That’s why state lawmakers decided to take the department out of political hands


prohibit officers from political activity.

Subsequent court cases have eroded that prohibition a bit, but for the most part Kansas City’s police must remain apolitical.

That’s great if you’re an officer and the police board rubber-stamps your choices. When it doesn’t, what’s a policeman to do? Board members can’t be voted out. Ousting the mayor would change one board vote, but by their own rules police can’t openly campaign against him.

The police have always missed the point: State control renders

them by design.

Yet, incredibly, most officers still cling to the system, despite its impact on issues such as salaries and work rules.

The answer — accountable local control and a public role in elections — is poison for most cops, although it hasn’t bothered Kansas City’s firefighters, or the police in any other city in America, except for St. Louis. That’s why they usually get close to what they want, while police here must be satisfied with what they’re given.

Sadly, state control also sends another message: After almost 75 years, Kansas Citians must


be protected from their police. That can’t be what the FOP means, but that’s what its lawsuit implies.

Politics is how we make decisions together. The police don’t want to be a part of that equation, and can only blame themselves for the results.