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FAQ: Why Kansas City Doesn't Have 'Local Control' Over Its Police Department And How That Could Change

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announces that the department has received a donation that'll allow it to purchase body cameras.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announces that the department has received a donation that'll allow it to purchase body cameras.

Changing who is ultimately responsible for the department’s actions requires support from the Missouri General Assembly or a statewide vote.

Protests over police violence have renewed calls for “local control” of the Kansas City Police Department.

The department is overseen by a five-member Board of Police Commissioners, made up of the mayor and four people appointed by the Missouri governor.

Local control would give Kansas City the power to appoint the members of the police board. It’s a key demand of protesters, who have already won concessions including funding for body cameras.

As activists continue to mobilize around the call for local control, here’s what you need to know.

Why doesn’t Kansas City have local control?

When the Kansas City Police Department was formed in 1874, the governor was put in charge of board appointments. That changed in 1932 when Tom Pendergast helped bring local control to the city. The political boss essentially controlled the police department out of his office on Main Street, keeping officers’ wages low so they’d be willing to accept bribes.

The change was shortlived. Seven years later, the power to appoint board members was handed back to the governor so the board wouldn’t be subject to the political whims of whoever was in power in Kansas City. The new board cleaned house, appointing a new police chief who fired roughly 50% of his employees in an effort to root out corruption, according to KCPD.

Who is currently in charge of the police department?

060820_KCPD Board of Police Commissioners.png
Kansas City Police Department
The Board of Police Commissioners is made up of four appointees from the governor and the mayor.

  • Nathan Garrett: He’s a partner at a law firm and a former federal prosecutor and FBI Special Agent. Garrett also worked for the West Plains police department for a year after he got his undergraduate degree.
  • Don Wagner: He’s a private investor and University of Missouri Kansas City trustee.
  • Mark Tolbert: He’s the Victorious Life Church pastor and president and the previous leader of The Coalition of Concerned Clergy.
  • Cathy Dean: She worked at the Polsinelli Law Firm in Kansas City for almost three decades and previously was on the Board of Police Commissioners from 1989 until 1994.
  • Quinton Lucas: Kansas City’s mayor automatically services on the board.

What is their process for handling complaints?

You can file a complaint about a police officer to the Office of Community Complaints. This has to be filed within 90 days of the incident by someone directly involved.

If the complaint is determined to be “appropriate for investigation,” it’s sent over to the KCPD Internal Affairs Unit to investigate. This includes a formal statement from the person who filed the complaint as well as documents and statements from witnesses and the officer.

The file is sent back over to the Office of the Community Complaints for a review. The director then sends the analysis and their recommendation to the police chief and the officer’s “entire chain of command,” according to Office of Community Complaints Executive Director Merrell Bennekin.

If the police department doesn’t agree with the office’s recommendation, they have a conference meeting to discuss the case. If there’s an impasse, then the Board of Police Commissioners weighs in.

An outside enforcement agency is in charge of reviewing all major use-of-force complaints and police shootings.

What’s the argument in favor of local control?

Protest organizers such as Henry Service say local control isn’t a “silver bullet” but if board members are picked by local leaders, they will have to answer to Kansas City residents.

“We'll have a way to hold the people who we've elected accountable for not doing the right thing and being in a position to do the right thing. So that gives us a level of accountability ... that we wouldn't have had ordinarily,” Service told KCUR.

Missouri Rep. Barbara Washington, who represents parts of eastern Kansas City including the Santa Fe and Washington Weatley neighborhoods, says the board should include members affected by police brutality.

“I’m not disparaging anyone that is one the police board. However, the things that are happening with our police department happen east of Troost, so we need a regular person on there, not someone who is necessarily the biggest activist or the biggest business or whatever," Washington says. "We need some regular folks on there and we need an opportunity for the mayor and the city council to have a say in who goes in that board.”

The move for local control has support from the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, the NAACP Kansas City branch and More2. Those groups have also called for KCPD Chief Rick Smith to step down.

Who has the power to fire the chief?

Kansas City resident Troy Hughes speaks with Police chief Rick Smith about police getting training to diffuse tense situations.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City resident Troy Hughes speaks with Police chief Rick Smith about police getting training to diffuse tense situations.

The board can fire the chief for cause. State law spells out fireable offenses such as being insubordinate or behaving in a way that’s “inconsistent with the interests of the public.”

What’s the police chief’s position on local control?

Chief Rick Smith addressed the issue in a radio interview Monday with KCMO Talk Radio’s Pete Mundo. Smith said the department has “always had local control” because the members of the board are local residents.

“What we don’t have is local political control and I see the aspect in that, you know, on the face it sounds very good. But for 32 years of policing, all I’ve known is our current method,” Smith said. “We’re the largest municipal law enforcement agency in the state of Missouri and looked at as one of the leaders, one of the role models for how we police on this side of the state versus all the rest of the state.”

What would it take to get local control?

The state legislature would have to change the law, or a citizen petition could put the issue on a statewide ballot.

In 2012, a statewide vote gave St. Louis control over its police board. Washington sees a similar path forward for Kansas City.

“The citizens are going to have to bring that forward. It has been somewhat clear that legislation is not going to move forward for local control,” Washington said.

Has local control helped in St. Louis?

It’s been a mixed bag, according to a St. Louis Public Radio review of the changes five years out. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed pushed for local control, but said that once it was implemented she felt that the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen didn’t exercise enough oversight.

John Chasnoff, a Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression co-chair, told KCUR in 2019that while the city is still figuring out the right checks and balances, he’s found the police department to be more responsive.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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