Kansas City Mayor Sly James crossed swords last week with Police Chief Darryl Forté and members of the Board of Police Commissioners.
The points of contention: drive-by shootings, police tactics and money.
“If we had more officers on the streets, then it would cut down drive-by shootings,” said Leland Shurin, board president. Forté said drive-by killings are more likely in neighborhoods with broken windows and an abundance of trash bags. Perhaps the city could work on that.
The discussion disturbed the mayor. “There are only so many dollars,” he said. “If you want to talk about it, then hear the truth, then let’s talk about the truth. There are only so many dollars out there.”
Kansas City will spend a quarter of a billion dollars on police next fiscal year.
The exchange reflects the frustration all three men must feel about the continuing problem of violent crime in Kansas City. As of Thursday, there have been 16 homicides since Jan. 1, nearly double the murder rate of just two years ago.
Last year, there were 128 homicides, the most since 2008.
As it happens, Forté and James are probably closer to agreement on violent crime remedies than either man might have admitted during their heated exchange. There is evidence they can work together to reduce murders: James was mayor and Forté the chief in 2014, when there were 82 homicides in Kansas City.
In a larger sense, though, disputes like last week’s are inevitable in a city that uniquely divides its responsibilities, and therefore its strategies, for addressing its serious violent crime problem.
Homicides are a challenge in every urban area, and Kansas City is no exception. It’s a disturbingly tangled problem caused by easy access to weapons, unemployment, poor educational opportunities, low wages, family dysfunction, neglected neighborhoods, bigotry, violent media, history, a warped criminal justice system and a lack of police resources.
Addressing criminal violence requires an integrated strategy for all those concerns. Fix the neighborhoods, hire more police, pick up the trash, tear down the abandoned homes, improve the schools and find jobs for the unemployed. Then murders will go down.
Yet no one in Kansas City is completely responsible for developing and implementing that strategy.
We’ve argued for City Council control of the Police Department for many years. But some Kansas Citians still see local control as an academic exercise, just moving boxes around on an organizational chart. Others think it’s an underhanded attempt to undermine the Fraternal Order of Police.
They’re wrong. Local control is a way to make one body, elected by and accountable to the people, fully responsible for understanding and addressing all the facets of the homicide problem.
Council control of the Police Department would not eliminate drive-by shootings or murders. But it would put elected leaders in charge of all the decisions related to violent crime and allow us to hold them accountable for results.
It would force them to make hard choices — and perhaps find money for more police and more trash removal.
That would be a start. Perhaps Mayor James and Chief Forté could begin the conversation.