Editorial: Kansas City’s police board gets new members but faces familiar challenges

Gov. Eric Greitens deserves credit for not treating appointments to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners as patronage jobs.
Gov. Eric Greitens deserves credit for not treating appointments to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners as patronage jobs.

Bishop Mark Tolbert and Kansas City attorney Nathan Garrett will take their seats Tuesday as the newest members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.

They have an important job. The five-member police board runs a department with a $250 million budget and roughly 1,950 employees. It’s their responsibility to keep Kansas Citians safe.

Both men bring relevant experience to the board. Bishop Tolbert runs a church on the Paseo and has been active in East Side politics for years. Garrett is a former federal prosecutor and special agent for the FBI.

Gov. Eric Greitens deserves credit for not treating these appointments as patronage jobs. Tolbert actually gave money to Chris Koster, Greitens’ Democratic opponent last year. Garrett contributed to Catherine Hanaway, the governor’s opponent in the 2016 GOP primary.

This enthusiasm includes a few caveats, however. How both men make important decisions, including selecting a new chief of police, is an important question. Greitens’ decision to replace two police board members in the middle of the search for a chief is a cause for concern, and Tolbert and Garrett now must get up to speed quickly.

We’ve previously objected to any interference by Greitens in the pick of a new chief. With two new members in place, any hint of improper influence from Jefferson City would be troubling.

Even with the two appointments, the police board is short a member. Alvin Brooks recently resigned to take a position in the Hickman Mills school district.

The police board is now operating with four members, essentially 80 percent of capacity. The governor could have easily addressed this problem by using one of his picks to fill Brooks’ empty seat, then used the other to replace one outgoing board member.

Instead, Greitens removed two outgoing board members, leaving Brooks’ seat unfilled and the board short a person. He should rectify that as quickly as possible by nominating another member of the board.

The politics of the new board members deserve scrutiny. State law prohibits board members other than the mayor from engaging in “partisan political activity” during their time in office.

Garrett is a law partner of Todd Graves, a former U.S. attorney and current chairman of the Missouri Republican Party. That relationship does not disqualify Garrett, of course, but it may be relevant — if, for example, Kansas City police officers face sudden pressure to crack down on undocumented immigrants.

In every other city, such decisions would be made locally. But Kansas City remains stuck in an antiquated system that gives the governor more say in how crime is addressed than the City Council.

Local control would be the best option to reduce crime and improve the working conditions of police officers.

For now, though, we’re left with state control and two new members of the board. Still, all of Kansas City hopes Mark Tolbert and Nathan Garrett will do a great job.