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Kansas City's new police chief was chosen by a state-controlled board. Here's how it works

A Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners meeting in July 2021.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners meeting in July 2021.

The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners oversees a $268 million budget and regularly discusses important matters in closed session.

Kansas City’s Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday carried out one of its highest-profile responsibilities when members announced they had chosen police Maj. Stacey Graves as the new chief of police.

The hiring of Graves, the first woman to lead the department on a non-interim basis, concluded a process that began when former Chief Rick Smith resigned in April.

In most cities, that process would have been handled by elected officials or a city manager. But Kansas City does not have authority over its own police department. Instead, KCPD reports to a police board whose members are appointed by the governor of Missouri. Besides hiring the chief of police, the board makes important decisions about how the department operates and spends its budget of more than $268 million.

The board is made up of five members, including the mayor and four governor appointees. It meets once a month to discuss and vote on topics ranging from complaints against police officers to the appointment of the police chief and budgetary decisions.

In recent years, as controversies around police conduct and procedures have multiplied, a core of activists has watched police board meetings carefully. For most Kansas Citians, though, the workings of the board are mostly a mystery. Even the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce joined other groups and individuals in complaining about a lack of transparency and public input in the process of choosing the latest police chief.

KCPD is the only police department in Missouri overseen by state politicians. No other city of comparable size in the country has this kind of board.

Here are some details about how the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners works and what it is responsible for.

Commissioners are chosen by politicians in Jefferson City

The governor-appointed commissioners are appointed for four-year terms, with one term set to expire roughly every year. Once nominated by the governor, the board members are approved by the Missouri Senate.

Current members of the board include:

  • Mark Tolbert, the president and pastor of Victorious Life Church.
  • Cathy Dean, an attorney and former teacher.
  • Don Wagner, a private investor and businessman.
  • Dawn Cramer, a businesswoman who works in the financial services industry.
  • Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.

Qualifications for board membership are minimal — members must be citizens of Missouri and must have been residents of Kansas City for the four years prior to their appointment. Missouri statute does not explicitly state that commissioners are required to live in Kansas City after they’ve been appointed.

Police commissioners, with the exception of the mayor, are prohibited under Missouri statute from any partisan political activity, and they may not hold any other positions in government or political parties.

Two of the commissioners, Tolbert and Wagner, are serving after their terms expired. Tolbert’s term ended in March 2022, and Wagner’s term ended nearly two years ago, in March 2021. They will continue on the board until the governor chooses to nominate their replacements.

Once appointed, commissioners can only be removed by the governor for official misconduct.

Basic functions of the police board

The police board is the ultimate authority for KCPD. Two of its primary functions are to choose the police chief, who serves as the chief executive, and to approve a budget. The board can also remove or suspend the police chief for a variety of reasons, including reckless disregard for public safety, violation of policy or misrepresentation of facts.

Though the initial police budget must be approved by the City Council through the annual budgeting process, the police board can vote to reallocate funds for any reason during the year without City Council approval. In the past, the board has altered the city’s spending plan and reallocated funds for things including a spare helicopter engine and multimillion-dollar brutality settlement fees.

Under Missouri statute, the police board is required to hear all complaints and charges filed against any member of the police department.

In the event of a city emergency, such as rioting, the board can also appoint special officers to a reserve force. This can only happen if the mayor or City Council declares an emergency.

Lucas said that important decisions are often reserved for closed-session meetings, which causes him concern.

“If you watch a Board of Police Commissioners meeting, you are rarely ever going to see a long debate, particularly on important policy issues,” he said.

Lucas specified some issues that are discussed in closed session: “Officer-involved shootings, rules, evidentiary issues. We’ve heard about a recent whistleblower letter.”

The mayor raised concerns in the Dec. 13 police board meeting about the decision to discuss the selection of the new police chief in a closed session. He also said that allegations found in the whistleblower’s letter, including alleged withholding of evidence from the prosecutor, merit a discussion in front of the public.

Police board meetings, which take place once a month, generally begin with ceremonial matters and commendations of police officers, staff and citizens. The board then hears reports from the chief and members of the command staff. Discussions are usually brief.

“Usually the first several hours are actually things that maybe don’t need much debate or discussion. And then we go into closed session and make monumental decisions,” Lucas told The Beacon. “Answering public concern about whistleblower claims, answering public concern about hiring a (chief of police). And none, none of that discussion held in the light of day.”

The police board president acts for the board when not in session

The police board president, selected by the commissioners, sets the agenda for the board meetings and is responsible for making decisions when the board is not in session.

If the police chief ever needs an administrative approval, this can go through the president rather than going to a full vote in a public meeting.

Unlike the Kansas City Council and its committees, and even most neighborhood associations, the police board has no bylaws, according to David Kenner, the police board’s secretary and attorney.

Lucas said he has seen few set procedures for the police board, beyond what is included in Missouri statute. That holds true for the selection process for the president. Missouri statute only says that the president is appointed by the commissioners, with no mention of when or how the selection must happen.

“There’s no process,” Lucas said. “It’s a little less than your normal sorority or fraternity.”

When he saw an item on the board agenda to select a board president last year, Lucas sent a letter to the other commissioners expressing his interest in the position.

The letter said, “Today, I write to ask for your support of me serving a one-year term in our regular commissioner rotation for the Board President position.” He wrote that former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver had served in the role for one year and said he believed it would build a stronger relationship between the city and its police department.

“I sent a letter, and then they actually never had a meeting about it again,” Lucas said.

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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