The Missouri Influencer Series

Missouri’s rural-urban split fuels disagreements over police control, state agenda

There is a perception in Kansas City and St. Louis that rural lawmakers exert outsized influence in the state Capitol in Jefferson City.
There is a perception in Kansas City and St. Louis that rural lawmakers exert outsized influence in the state Capitol in Jefferson City. File photo

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Kansas City taxpayers write a hefty check each year for police protection — almost $250 million in the current municipal budget.

Yet a five-member panel appointed by the governor controls the department, and has since 1939. That’s when Pendergast-era corruption prompted Gov. Lloyd Stark to form the Board of Police Commissioners. While other big cities once functioned under the same system, Kansas City remains the only major municipality with a state-controlled police force.

The state’s reach into local affairs extends far beyond law enforcement. Over the years Missouri lawmakers have peeled away from cities authority over everything from guns to minimum wage hikes. Bills have been introduced barring cities from regulating disposable plastic grocery bags, Uber and Lyft, and implementing protections against discrimination of LGBTQ Missourians.

We asked The Star’s readers a series of questions about local control. They were most interested in two:

Does it matter that the governor still appoints a commission that controls the police department, and should this continue?

There is a perception in Kansas City and St. Louis that rural lawmakers exert outsized influence in Jefferson City. What can larger Missouri cities do to ensure their priorities get traction in the legislature?

The Star, in turn, posed the questions to its panel participating in the Missouri Influencers project, intended to spark more discussion of the biggest issues facing our state.

Police control

Several Influencers said there is no compelling need for a change.

“The fact is that we have one of the very best urban police departments in the United States,” said Jeff Simon, managing partner at the Husch Blackwell law firm and a former police commissioner. “The department has been free from systemic corruption, civil rights violations or labor strife for decades — a boast very few other police departments can make. There is no need to change anything.”

Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. and a former Kansas City Council member, said: “If anyone can give any evidence that Kansas City would be a safer city, I would be on board.”

Others cited St. Louis, which gained control of its police after Missouri voters approved a 2012 ballot proposition, as a cautionary tale.

“The state’s experience with allowing St. Louis to gain local control of the city’s police department has not been good — crime has gone up, accountability has gone down, and politicians are trying to exert control over the department,” said political strategist James Harris.

Ryan Silvey, Missouri Public Service Commissioner and former state senator, said there should be no change in governance without broad support from police officers.

“It has worked very well and most of the officers I know are happy with the situation,” Silvey said.

But many more Influencers who responded said the current set-up is an anti-democratic anachronism.

“This structure was necessary during the prohibition-era when city government was corrupt and utilized the police for their political gains,” said Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Policing in the United States is an inherently local function — the current structure is un-American. There is something symbolically objectionable to having local tax dollars fund the police but governed by a board of commissioners that are political appointees.”

Luis M. Cordoba, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief student support and intervention officer, said the existing system diminishes the stature of local officials.

“If we have to rely on the state to control the affairs of our city, we are sending a message to our community that we are not worthy or can’t be trusted,” Cordoba said. “It is time that we not rely on state control and take local control in our hands.”

Richard Martin, director of government affairs at JE Dunn Construction, said: “I think that this policy has run its course and should be changed. Kansas City law enforcement should not be subject to the gubernatorial political winds every four years.”

Duke Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, said local control is always the best option, “especially since in my experience individuals who run for office opposing ‘big government’ simply like to impose their ideas and restrictions on lower levels of government.”

“However, any transition to local control should involve all of the stakeholders, including rank and file police officers. Let local stakeholders decide what is best for themselves.”

Rural, urban split

Most Influencers agreed that the power imbalance, a reflection of the Democratic Party’s decline in rural areas, was real and had serious consequences.

“The revenue comes from the cities and state policies are hurting the ability of the cities to attract business,” said Michael Barrett, Missouri State Public Defender director. “For instance, the rural areas receive a disproportionately high percentage of state criminal justice dollars even though their crime is mostly low-level and non-violent. If the cities received their fair share, they wouldn’t be among the most violent in the nation according to FBI reports.”

The AFL-CIO’s Dujakovich said a fair and impartial redistricting after the 2020 census would be the most important structural change.

“Hopefully new maps — and a new way of drawing legislative maps — will allow for a more representative discussion of priorities in the legislature,” he said. “I am supporting Clean Missouri (a Nov. 6 ballot initiative) as a way to change the way we address redistricting, limit the influence of lobbyists and shut the revolving door between being a legislator and being a lobbyist.”

But David Steelman, chairman of the University of Missouri Board of Curators and a former state legislator, said grousing about rural power is simply another way for cities to complain that they can’t always get their way. Urban interests would be better off, he said, by becoming better organized and more persuasive.

“What the urban areas need to do is, first, put forth policies that benefit the entire state of Missouri, and then explain to a majority of lawmakers and the governor why the desired policy is good for the citizens of Missouri,” he said. “There are many cases where a policy that is good for an urban area is in fact good for the entire state, but the case must be made and not presumed.”

Others said there was little mystery about what Missouri’s two big cities needed do: prioritize, collaborate and maybe just be a little nicer.

“I have seen the leaders in both cities be very confrontational and antagonistic with the legislature on a broad array of issues,” Silvey said. “Poking someone in the eye on one issue and then asking for their help on another issue isn’t usually a fruitful strategy. They can start by picking their battles and staying focused on issues that are truly important to moving the city forward and not engaging in other political battles they can’t win.”

The Rev. Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University, said constituents from Missouri cities need to coordinate their efforts behind shared priorities in order to make their influence felt.

“If the stakeholders of these larger communities are split in their major priorities they will always lose to the interests of smaller communities with strongly shared interests and priorities,” he said.

Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth said, “Kansas City and St. Louis have much more in common than what separates them. Closer coordination between the two largest metropolitan areas would help each.

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