Kansas City is the only major municipality that does not control its own police department. The governor appoints a five-member board that hires the chief and sets policy.
The form of governance, in place since 1939, is just one example of how Missouri state government pre-empts local control. Its reach extends to regulation of guns and the setting of the minimum wage.
We asked our panel of Missouri Influencers these questions:
▪ Should Kansas City have control of its police force?
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▪ Is it true that rural state lawmakers exert outsized influence over Kansas City and St. Louis? If so, what can the cities do to more effectively advance their interests?
Kay Barnes, former mayor of Kansas City, senior director for university engagement at Park University
It matters a great deal! We’re long past the time when we should have regained local control. The current situation is an anachronism.
Ongoing efforts to collaborate on the part of our urban legislators with the rural lawmakers do bear fruit.
Michael Barrett, Missouri State Public Defender director
It would seem to create a constitutional concern as well. Elected officials in Kansas City exist only through the consent of the governed and yet state leaders without direct accountability to the people are calling the shots on police matters. Yes it’s a concern.
It’s the Chamber of Commerce. The revenue comes from the cities and state policies are hurting the ability of the cities to attract business. 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.
Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools
I wasn’t aware of this and I don’t know what differences will occur if local control is restored. I do know that our city has not experienced major issues between law enforcement and the community.
We have to align on issues that impact big cities and rural areas while also building ongoing relationships. It’s important that we model how educators are collaborating in the consolidated school districts, which includes urban, suburban and rural superintendents.
Mark Bryant, lawyer and former Kansas City Council member
No. State control of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department should end. Kansas City is the only major city in the United States that does not have local control of the police department. Kansas City residents pay for public safety employees and their equipment and they should be able to determine the level of service they desire. State control of the police department is an archaic and outdated system that does not promote efficiency or transparency and should be discarded.
My perception is the Republican Party dominates rural Missouri and that Kansas City and St. Louis are the only areas where the Democratic Party reigns. The Missouri General Assembly reflects that dichotomy and rural issues and perspectives exert outsized influence because the Republican Party holds the leadership positions in our legislative branch of government. Missouri cities will need to prioritize issues and unite their business, labor and legislative leaders behind a common agenda.
Luis M. Cordoba, Kansas City Public Schools’ chief student support and intervention officer
I don’t think that Kansas City should be under state control. The legacy of Pendergast is long gone and we need to trust and think that our city and county elected officials are doing the right thing. What can we learn from the Pendergast era, and how can we ensure that corruption is minimized in our city. 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. It is time that we not rely on state control and take local control in our hands. With that said, if we don’t trust our local process, then we have no choice but to rely on state control. The Pendergast era of corruption in the 1930s is over. Let’s move on.
For larger Missouri cities to get traction in the legislature to ensure their priorities, I think we need to do a better job at lobbying, and then mobilize our voter power to make the changes we need to make in Jefferson City. Exercising our power to vote is a powerful strategy.
The Rev. Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University
The stated mission of the KC Police department is to protect and serve with professionalism, honor and integrity. The pursuit of this mission should determine where to house the department. If state control is thwarting the pursuit of the mission then seeking alternate arrangements are warranted.
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.
Jack Danforth, former U.S. senator
Yes it matters. It would be better for Kansas City if the police department were locally controlled.
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.
Duke Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO
Any time Kansas City is an outlier, as we currently are with state control of our police department, it warrants an honest discussion. Whether it is a unique, good position, like how Kansas City is the only jurisdiction in the nation to provide free transit to all veterans, or a unique, not-so-good position, like how Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the country, we should evaluate whether this is place we want to be. In this case, state control of the police department should not continue. Local control is always best, 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.
Hopefully, new maps — and a new way of drawing legislative maps — will allow for a more representative discussion of priorities in the legislature. I am supporting Clean Missouri 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.
John Fierro, Kansas City Public Schools board member
Yes, it does matter. I favor local control of the Police Department. Nearly 80 percent of the city’s general fund operating budget is focused on public safety — a priority for area residents, based on citizen satisfaction surveys, as well as city officials. The Police Department is slated to receive $250.8 million, up from $242.5 million, in the new budget. I think this level of financial support from city revenues requires that the Police Department resemble more of a city department and be accountable to local control. Therefore, the chief of police should report to the city manager like other departments; I advocate that its board of commissioners be appointed by the mayor and ratified by a majority of the city council. Further checks on the appointments would limit the power of one individual. This organizational structure places a number of different levels of accountability that will prevent Pendergast-era corruption and result in greater efficiency of city services and maximization of financial resources.
I agree with the perception, the total number of lawmakers representing Kansas City and St. Louis indicates their influence is in the minority in comparison to the number of seats held by rural lawmakers. I think larger Missouri cities should support, participate in and mirror Gov. Parson’s commitment to bridge the urban and rural divide by bringing state, local, and business leaders together to tackle Missouri’s shared challenges; collaboration is never a bad thing even if it means crossing the aisle.
Jason Grill, media, public affairs and crisis communications consultant
The Kansas City police department should be under Kansas City control. Local control is the norm in this arena and KC should have the same rights as other Missouri cities.
Every city in the state needs to work together to help Missouri move forward and realize its true potential. The rural versus urban fights of the past need to end and both need to realize each present value to our economy and the state as a whole. We need to compete against other states and global economies for better economic prosperity, jobs and opportunities. Any rural versus urban or local control versus state control debate only hurts us in our collective efforts to make Missouri a better place and state to live, work and do business in.
James Harris, political strategist
I absolutely think that the state has a vested interest in continuing to maintain control of the Kansas City police department, as politicization of the police force is a real risk. 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. Historically, the state has done a good job picking a board of involved civic leaders to govern police in Kansas City, and I think that should continue.
I believe cities could increase their influence over legislative policy by demonstrating their dedication to governing responsibly and looking at issues not as “urban versus rural” matters, but as an opportunity to make a positive difference for the state as a whole. Kansas City has done an excellent job in this regard, but St. Louis has not.
Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. and former Kansas City Council member
It does matter and should continue. If anyone can give any evidence that Kansas City would be a safer city, I would be on board. KCPD is one of a few large city departments that has not had serious controversy.
Maybe getting more out to vote would help. I am not sure otherwise.
Bob Holden, former governor
No. The people living in KC should have the responsibility to oversee their police department.
They should learn how to work together better and not against each other. They should develop an urban agenda.
Vernon Percy Howard Jr., pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City
This question matters to the uttermost. Lack of local control impacts, and in some instances usurps, formal local municipal governance responsibility to cater to the needs of local constituents. What’s further and equally troubling is that often state legislatures exercise extreme domination in the execution and inaction of policy and law that harms rather than advances wellness for citizens in urban settings. Most of these citizens are of color and poor whites. The result is that their voice and democratic representation is impaired. This has negatively impacted our community in criminal justice reform efforts, both police brutality cases, and our SCLC $15 Living Wage Ordinance voted by the Kansas City electorate last year but still yet to be fully executed due to state interference.
Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group
I have no reason to believe that Kansas City Democrat politics today is any less corrupt than it was during the Pendergast era. I favor maintaining the current policy.
Missouri is a strongly conservative state and our legislature reflects that. Missourians roundly reject the liberal socialist agenda that our big city politicians embody. Until they recognize and at least moderate their extreme views, this will remain Missouri’s political status quo.
Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College
It does matter — but not the way its critics suggest. While it’s true that KC’s police commission is appointed by the governor with Senate approval, its members must be local residents, and the mayor is guaranteed a seat. That means Sly James has a direct voice in the police commission’s decisions — a good idea, since he controls its budget. And no matter who happened to appoint the commissioners sitting around him, there’s no power like the power of the purse.
Identify the issues that unite rather than divide us, and build coalitions to address them. In other words, provide the leadership your voters and citizens have the right to expect.
Chris Maples, interim chancellor at Missouri University of Science and Technology
I see no viable reason for the police in Kansas City to be under state control unless the state happened to be footing the entire cost of their operation.
I actually don’t believe that rural lawmakers exert disproportionate influence in Jefferson City. That said, rural areas of the state share similar concerns. If urban areas of the state also have urban-specific issues, it would be much more effective to present an urban versus Kansas City or St. Louis front in isolation.
Richard Martin, director of government affairs at JE Dunn Construction
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.
Make their case to the General Assembly how they are unique and require unique solutions to their challenges. Kansas City and St. Louis are the economic engines for the majority of the Missouri revenues. Lawmakers ought to want to listen to our civic and elected leaders when they lobby the legislature.
Jay Nixon, former governor
Local control matters mostly because of its symbolism.
Ken Novak, UMKC professor of criminal justice and criminology
Kansas City is the only major city (perhaps the only city) to operate under a structure where leadership is primarily accountable to a board, the majority of whom are appointed by the governor, rather than locally elected officials. This structure was necessary during the prohibition-era when city government was corrupt and utilized the police for their political gains. The current structure has survived longer than its intended purpose. 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.
On the other hand, if this were to change and Kansas City were governed more consistently with the other 18,000 police departments in the country, I am unconvinced that the public would notice much. It is unclear whether policing on the street would change much by structural change alone. Bureaucratically processes would certainly change, but few would notice much. St. Louis switched to ‘local control’ several years ago, and not much has changed on the street — things neither got better, nor worse. Therefore, symbolism aside, perhaps Kansas Citians should be more concerned about the priorities of the police and how the police implement evidence-based best practices than how they are governed.
CiCi Rojas, partner and president of Tico Productions and Tico Sports
A few years ago, Mayor James created a task force to debate the issue and make a recommendation. It was decided to continue as is. I believe it is time to reconsider it. I believe local governance should be considered as many key drivers have changed in the last few years. Individuals who live and work in KC are best suited to deal with the range of issues we are facing, especially the increase in violent crime.
Elect individuals who will make this item a priority, and create a larger advocacy consortium that will have a consistent presence during the legislative session.
Leland Shurin, lawyer and chairman of the Kansas City Police Board
It does not matter at all that KC Mo has this form of police commission. When you were a child didn’t your mother say something like: “Just because everyone else does it, does not mean you should also.” Our police commission keeps the local politicians from exerting political influence on the police. We have a highly innovative department which has one of the few in the USA to never be under a DOJ control/order. The current system works very well. Only the local politicians want local political control of the police.
Work together with all the larger population areas for more pro city legislation; change the system so the General Assembly districts are not created by politicians or political parties.
Ryan Silvey, Missouri Public Service commissioner and former state senator
No, it doesn’t matter. It has worked very well and most of the officers I know are happy with the situation. It should only change if there is broad support from the men and women in uniform who are most closely affected by it.
I have seen the leaders in both cities be very confrontational and antagonistic with the legislature on a broad array of issues. 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.
Jeff Simon, managing partner, Husch Blackwell
What matters for Kansas City is only this: what works for Kansas City. The fact is that we have one of the very best urban police departments in the United States. In my experience as a now-former police commissioner, I can attest that Jefferson City had very little involvement with the operations and management of the department. The governor picked the commissioners based on character and competency, and trusted them to run the department. 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. The board of police commissioners does collaborate closely with City Hall, and the “cost savings” rationale for eliminating the present structure rings hollow upon examination. In short, we have a professional police department which efficiently serves the citizens of Kansas City. There is no need to change anything.
Collaboration and a willingness to identify common interests for the betterment of all Missouri would be the ideal. Alas, the hyper-partisanship of our current political climate probably makes this a pipe dream.
David Steelman, chairman of the University of Missouri Board of Curators and former state legislator
I believe all departments should be under the control of the subdivision that funds them, including police.
First, I reject the idea that rural lawmakers exert “outsized influence” in Jefferson City. The influence of a lawmaker depends on a number of variables such as being in the majority party and the lawmaker’s individual skill and determination, but if by “outsized” it is meant that influence is somehow undemocratic it is flat wrong. Influence depends on persuasion, and simply complaining that urban interests cannot get their way, or that the state legislature is not moved by the editorial pages of the largest newspapers, is not 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. 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.
Patrick Tuohey, Show-Me Institute director of municipal policy
Currently, the governor appoints prominent Kansas City residents to the board of police commissioners. The mayor also has an automatic seat on the commission. Changing this so that the mayor appoints the board members exposes the police and the police chief to local politics without assuring any improvement in public safety. After all, the mayor oversees the police budget.
If leaders of larger Missouri cities want to ensure their priorities get traction, they need to show they can successfully manage the power they already have. Instead, they employ state statutes to increase local taxes, hand out more subsidies to their political cronies, restrict technological innovation, and then fail to provide basic services such as infrastructure and public safety. If Kansas City and St. Louis are the engines of the Missouri economy, they are stalled or in reverse. It is completely reasonable to expect the state legislature to stop cities from misusing the power the legislature gave them in the first place.
Scott Wagner, Kansas City mayor pro tem
It matters as it suggests a problem with local leadership still exists, but if the city is to have the responsibility of financing the Police Department then it should have the authority to oversee its operation. That being said, this is not a matter of flipping a switch. St. Louis provides a cautionary tale as to a rush to local control. Right now the city is embarking on various conversations on integrating various departments, with IT being the first. If we can have success integrating various operations it makes a local control conversation much more productive.
Make sure their suburban legislators are on the same page with their urban counterparts. That will assure a bipartisan approach.
Maurice Watson, partner at Husch Blackwell
Yes, and the rationale for this structure no longer applies. Self-determination and self-government is essential to our system. This is an aberration.
I tend to agree with this view. The larger cities, as drivers of the state’s economy, should use their economic stature to influence the legislative agenda. Business leaders in our cities can be most effective in this area.