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Kansas City's First Police Chief Is Now Forgotten, But He Was Once A Wild West Legend

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Clay Speers, the great-grandson of Kansas City's first police chief, Thomas Speers, admires a portrait of his relative at KCPD headquarters.

In the annals of Wild West lawmen, you may not know Thomas Speers, the first police chief in Kansas City, but he was a legend in the late 19th century.

“He was contemporaries with 'Bat' Masterson, Wyatt Earp, 'Wild Bill' Hickok," says his great-grandson Clay Speers. "They would hang around when he was town marshal at the City Market square."

How well-known?

"Thomas M. Speers was one of the best-known men in the western county," The Kansas City Gazette wrote when he died on March 21, 1896. "It was often said of him that his name was familiar from the Atlantic to the Pacific."

He was police chief for 21 years, making him the longest-serving chief in the history of the Kansas City Police Department. 

To remember Speers, the department Tuesday renamed the 1100 block of Locust with an honorary street sign.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A street sign honoring Thomas Speers, the first KCPD chief, hangs at 11th and Locust streets.

The department recently put Speers' portrait on display in its lobby. For many years, it hung at the Kansas City Fire Department academy. The fire department mistakenly believed it was a painting of its first chief, according to Alan Pierce from the Kansas City Police Historical Society.

Speers was elected Kansas City town marshal in 1870. When Missouri legislators passed the Metropolitan Police Law in 1874, the 29-year-old Speers was appointed the chief of the newly established police department. At the time, Kansas City was basically made up of the West Bottoms and City Market. Speers had a department of 28 men.

He also had a unique approach to crime-fighting in a wide-open city.

"Well-known offenders were picked up when they arrived in town," says Pierce, and then they were held and shown to officers. "Speers held them responsible for any crimes that might have occurred while they were in town."

Not that Speers didn't let some things slide. Hickok was in Kansas City after his lawman days were over, and he was visiting with his old friend in the City Market.

“He told Chief Speers he was going to shoot six rounds in the ‘O’ in a saloon sign that was down the street, which he did," his great-grandson Clay Speers says. 

Speers lost his job in 1895 when he ran afoul of Missouri Gov. W.J. Stone. He opened an investigation into a corrupt local judge who was close to the governor. Stone insisted the Police Board fire the chief, but the board resigned instead. The governor found new board members to carry out the deed.

Speers died a year later. He was at city hall filing paperwork to run for mayor when he had a heart attack. He was 49.

Sam Zeffis KCUR's metro reporter. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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