Why Kansas City lost local control of its police force — and why there’s a push to get it back

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Protesters chanted “power to the people” as political leaders said the time has come for Kansas City to regain control of its police department.

“There’s a mistrust (of police), and until it’s addressed top down we will continue to have this distrust,” said Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III of St. James United Methodist Church.

But getting change at the top is tricky in a city where the police are controlled by a board selected by the governor of Missouri.

Kansas City has the only police department in the country with a state-appointed board overseeing it.

To understand why, you have to go back to the 1930s when Tom Pendergast controlled the political machine that ran the city for more than a decade. Corruption was rampant.

“Police officers were hired and fired at the whim of local politicians,” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Police officers owed their livelihood to local politicians, which put them in a position to engage in political corruption.”

Novak said those who fought back got a tough lesson in the power of Pendergast.

“It wasn’t unusual at that time for people who were against the local politician to find themselves in jail on Election Day,” Novak said.

To break the Pendergast machine, the state took over control of the police department with the governor appointing four members of a board to oversee its operation. Kansas City’s mayor is the fifth member and the only locally elected official.

During the 1930s, state-appointed police boards were common across the United States. But as laws were adopted limiting the power of political bosses, most police departments, including St. Louis police, reverted back to local control.

So why not Kansas City?

“Since the community largely wasn’t very vocal about it, there wasn’t a push for change here,” Novak said.

But in the last two weeks that has changed.

“The relationship that you see across the country (with police) is here in Kansas City,” Cleaver said. “There have been many complaints. Groups have tried to meet with the chief of police and tried to address some of these things but they haven’t been addressed.”

But Nathan Garrett, who is a member of the police board of commissioners and served two years as president, said he believes the system has works well for decades, and he’s not convinced changing it would improve it.

“In my experience, politics and law enforcement are a toxic combination,” said Garrett, an attorney and former police officer who was appointed to the board by former Gov. Eric Greitens.

“I believe strongly in the political independence of the board of police commissioners. That’s not to say we are insulated from influence and persuasion,” he said.

Garrett said the board holds monthly meetings where any member of the public is invited to talk, no appointment necessary.

“We have made changes and done things as a consequence of people coming and speaking to us,” he said.

Garrett said the board is local despite being appointed by the governor. By law, every member must live in Kansas City.

“I think it’s the case of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Garrett said.

But others believe it is broken and the time is right for change.

“Having local control has symbolic importance for a community who doesn’t always feel their voices are heard,” Novak said. “Whether it will change policing overnight like a light switch? I think that is too much to expect.”

In fact, in St. Louis, which regained local control seven years ago, not much has changed at all, said Scott Decker, a retired criminal justice professor from St. Louis.

He said local control hasn’t ushered in the problems some feared, nor been the panacea others had hoped for.

“But I think it was the right thing to do,” Decker said. “People who are elected locally better understand the problems of a city.”

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