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Control Issues Kansas City (Again) Ponders Local Control of the Police Department

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Above image credit: Inside a police car on patrol. (Brian Perlman | Flatland)
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7 minute read

The necessary steps should be taken to return the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department to local control. It should function under a police board, the members of which are appointed by the Mayor, subject to approval by the City Council.

So reads the final report of the Mayor’s Commission on Civil Disorder, Aug. 15, 1968. Home rule of a locally controlled police department was the top recommendation of that group, formed after massive community unrest and conflict with Kansas City police in the days following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One might think that such a forthright request would quickly be put into action, particularly in the wake of the most racially charged period of Kansas City’s modern existence.

But local control wasn’t adopted. Not then, and not the last time that the issue was considered and then set aside by a mayoral commission in 2013. 

It’s back again. On Wednesday, Feb. 5 the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee will address the possibility.

Local control has become a perennial issue, never far from the minds of some people who wish to see a more direct line of accountability between the police and taxpayers.

Alternatively, it’s a non-starter for others – including police leadership.

Clearly, the events of 1968 appear distant. The decades since have been shaped by Black Lives Matter activism, the widespread adoption of de-escalation techniques by police, the advent of community policing, and a growing emphasis on understanding trauma, mental health and addiction as factors driving 911 calls for police assistance.

Yet Kansas City – an outlier compared to every major city in the country – has continued to use the current model, in place since 1939. The governor appoints the four members to the Board of Police Commissioners, who are then approved by the Missouri Senate. The fifth member is the mayor.

“Every other city in the nation has local control,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, one of the groups advocating the issue in recent months. “Without it, we’re giving away our power.”

A resolution to simply study the matter has been tabled multiple times since November by a city council committee.

The reasons given vary. Some won’t definitely say “no,” but note that more pertinent issues ought to command attention, such as the city’s high number of homicides (148 in 2019, not counting three officer-involved shootings) and non-fatal shootings. They warn that simply changing the form of governance won’t be a panacea to curb gun violence. 

The city’s relatively harmonious police/community relations factor into the thinking too, although that’s a subjective calculation. Some also sense that the department functions free from the type of corruption that caused the state to grab control following the Tom Pendergast era.

Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson.

Third District City Councilmember Melissa Robinson introduced Kansas City’s latest resolution, which initially asked the city manager to study the issue. The resolution now asks for a task force to be created, reporting findings within a year.

Robinson has been stunned by the relative lack of support for even gathering data, which she believes is a crucial step, no matter the ultimate outcome.

“There are so many requests that constituents have for the police and there is no real lane for them,” she said. 

Widespread calls for a deeper commitment to community policing often lead among constituents, Robinson said.

Another influencing factor for Robinson was a point raised by MORE2. A large portion of the current or recent commissioners have lived in the Brookside and Plaza areas, while few have come from the neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime.

“Representation matters,” Robinson said.

The Long Game

Supporters of local control say they won’t be daunted by delays. They anticipate that five years might be needed to build alliances and a successful strategy, including gaining the support of politicians in Jefferson City.

“We can work on local control and violence at the same time,” said Janae “Justice” Gatson, an organizer for the ACLU of Missouri.

Last week, the public safety committee agreed to table action on the issue after listening to widely divergent views. The committee grappled with dropping Robinson’s resolution entirely, or asking the mayor for input and help in possibly creating a commission to study the benefits and drawbacks of changing to local control. 

Police Deputy Chief Karl Oakman testified on behalf of the police department, which is opposed, noting “at this time there are more pressing issues.”

KCPD Chief of Police Rick Smith.

A top concern is Kansas City’s rank among the top 10 most violent cities per capita. The other nine have local control, Oakman noted, echoing a point that Chief of Police Rick Smith has recently stressed.

Smith penned a long blog post in November around the issue.

“Under our current governance model, we are agile and adaptable,” Smith wrote. “We can focus resources where they are needed most without being slowed by politics or bureaucracy. We can quickly respond to the needs of neighborhoods and businesses because we aren’t beholden to any particular elected official.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas, even as a candidate, expressed an interest in studying the issue — in particular the experience of St. Louis, which returned to local control in 2013, although with less than stellar reviews.

St. Louis Story

St. Louis is on the radar of those pressing for change, but not as a desirable or even feasible model. Among other things, the city’s form of government – 28 aldermen – is not comparable to Kansas City. 

“We don’t even call caffeinated beverages the same thing,” said McDonald of MORE2.

In St. Louis, critics believe the overarching goal of local control – accountability – has been undercut by how that control has been structured.

The St. Louis police department is structurally set within the broader public safety department. Public safety also is in charge of the city jail, a medium-security prison, the fire department, liquor control, buildings and city emergency management.

The result, some say, is a massive bureaucracy.

“There’s no accountability,” said Missouri Rep. Chris Carter, whose district includes the high crime area of north St. Louis, an area he says is rarely policed. 

Carter said he’s grown so frustrated that he did the only thing he thought might work. He’s introduced legislation this session to revert control back to the state.

Missouri Rep. Chris Carter.

Carter, like other critics, noted no personal animosity towards either the mayor, or the public safety director. Rather, he pointed to a lack of leadership, political will and a plan.

“I’m going to do every damn thing that I can to get it turned back to the state,” Carter said. “What would you do if your friends and neighbors were getting shot and killed?” 

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, also had been a supporter of local control. Now, she’s open to discussing giving it back to state control.

“I believe police/community relations have gotten worse,” she said. Murderers are emboldened by unsolved homicides, she said.

Alderwoman Megan Green co-authored an opinion piece for USA Today examining the findings of a report by Local Progress and The Center for Popular Democracy, which recently evaluated the police departments of 12 major cities, but didn’t include Kansas City. 

The findings, which include a toolkit for evaluating departments, concluded that St. Louis has “significant room for improvement” in the areas of independent oversight policy, use-of-force policies and co-optation of immigration enforcement.

Green opposes returning to state control, which faces an uphill battle in Jefferson City. She is pressing for more change within St. Louis.

“We have to form the courage to put in place policies that address use-of-force police practices that we know create friction in the community,” Green said. “But there just isn’t the courage.” 

Carter, Nasheed and Green noted that Kansas City appears more reactive to citizen activism, noting recently passed protections on behalf of renters.  

Crime, including public discussion of what strategies are being deployed, deserve that type of sharp, openly discussed focus, they said. 

“You had more eyes on it under the state,’ Nasheed said, “when we had a commission.”    

‘How long will my daddy be dead?’

Sheryl Ferguson used her public comment time during January’s police commission meeting to the full. She’s familiar with the department, having been given a police certificate of appreciation in 2016 for her work in the community.

Sheryl Ferguson. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Ferguson took her place at the microphone, wearing a black t-shirt with white bold lettering: “No I Do Not Fit The Description.” The shirt was a reference the many African American lives lost to fatal shootings by police in Kansas City. In 2019, there were two such deaths by Kansas City officers and one by a Clay County Sheriff’s deputy. 

She was there to address the latest, the death of Cameron Lamb, a 26-year-old who police shot and killed in December. Ferguson’s daughter had dated Lamb. He was her first love, and the families remain close.

Lamb, she said, was not a thug. She then began to detail how family and friends saw him — Lamb’s helpful nature, his love of fixing automobiles and devotion to his three children. She relayed the words of his five-year-old son, the plaintive query he now often repeats.

“How long will my daddy be dead?”

Then, she walked to the front of the room where the commissioners sit.

“I no longer want this,” she said placing the framed 2016 award before Commissioner Nathan Garrett. “It disgusts me.”

Family learned of Lamb’s death through social media and television reports. And they remain frustrated with a seeming lack of answers about what happened that day. They dispute accounts that Lamb pointed a gun, forcing an officer to fire.

Two days after Ferguson publicly criticized the department, she said an advocate with the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime called her, saying that the department asked them to reach out. A few days after that, Garrett called her.

Ferguson still has questions and favors local control, believing that it might be a better route to affecting police policy. She attended the most recent city hall hearing on local control, wearing her t-shirt.

“I still take that as an olive branch,” she said of the recent phone calls. “I was voicing my negative views.” 

Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer.

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