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80 Years Post-Pendergast, Kansas City Mayoral Hopefuls Wonder If Local Control Of Police Is Worth It

Missouri State Historical Society
The last time Kansas City controlled its own police department, political corruption was rampant, as depicted in the cartoon above.

Kansas City, Missouri, is the only major city in the country that does not control its own police department. Regaining that control from the state may be a big issue for Kansas City’s next mayor — if they decide it’s worth the effort.

The city lost control of its police department because of rampant corruption. In 1932, boss Tom Pendergast’s political machine challenged Missouri law to regain local control of the police department. It only lasted seven years.

Kansas City and St. Louis’ department had been under state control since the years after the Civil War.

Kansas City historian Monroe Dodd said Pendergast effectively ran the police out of his office on Main Street. He says police wages were kept low back then — so officers would be more likely to accept bribes.

“If certain prostitutes were working, if certain gambling houses were going, if liquor was being sold, especially toward the end of prohibition, police could look the other way — if the people who ran these operations were friends of the machine,” Dodd said.

By 1939, the Pendergast era was at its end. And the governor at the time was able to get a law passed to regain state control of the department so that it wouldn’t be subject to the political whims of whoever was in power in Kansas City.

Click  HERE to go directly to the candidates’ stance on the issue

The push for local control in St. Louis

Until 2013, St. Louis was in the same boat as Kansas City, with a governor-appointed board of commissioners who hire the police chief and oversee the department.

Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says it wasn’t an efficient way to run the department.  

“You have a five-member board that meets once a month. Getting anything done takes forever,” Slay says.

Slay, who was mayor under four different governors, says there was a disconnect between the state and the city.

“Not one time did I have a governor say to me, ‘Well, how can I help with the police department? Hey, you have any suggestions for a police board appointment, or how can we help the city of St. Louis address crime?’ Not one time,” Slay said.

For years, St. Louis lobbied lawmakers in Jefferson City, but there wasn’t much interest.  Eventually, the issue was put on a statewide ballot through a citizen initiative petition. Kansas City voters even got to weigh in.

The switch, however, wasn’t seamless. Eliminating redundancies between the city and the police, like vehicle maintenance and human relations, was a logistical nightmare.

John Chesnoff leads the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, a group that pushed for local control in St. Louis.

He says they are still figuring out the right checks and balances, and how the mayor and city council can oversee the department without interfering with actual policing.

Still, Chesnoff believes it was the right choice.

“We’re finding that it's easier to have a more responsive police department this way,” Chesnoff says.

Is it worth the effort in Kansas City?

Alvin Brooks, who sat on the board of police commissioners until 2017, says Kansas City has come a long way from rampant political corruption of the 1930s.

When Brooks ran for mayor in 2007, he says he wasn’t ready to push for local control — partially because the Kansas City chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police was against it. The FOP tells KCUR that it does not yet have a comment on the issue. 

But Brooks says he says he’s come around to the idea.

“I think it’s good for the police and fire and other departments to be responsible to the policymakers of the city, and as I said, we’re far from being another Pendergast or mafia era,” Brooks says.

Brooks doesn’t buy the argument that state control keeps politics out of policing.

“They say, ‘Well suppose you get this type of mayor.’ Well, suppose you get this (political) type of governor,” Brooks says.

Still, he says it would be an uphill battle to convince lawmakers in Jefferson city to give the issue any attention.

UMKC Criminologist Ken Novak agrees. He was part of a group that studied the issue for Sly James in 2013.

Novak says lobbying lawmakers to give Kansas City control over its police department would likely consume a lot of any mayor’s time, energy and emotions.

“And if, at the end of the day, all I get from that is symbolism, I don't know if it's worth my effort,” Novak says.

Novak says local control would give people a more direct line to their police. But it probably won’t have an effect on crime.

“Let's be honest, crime today in crime rates that we have today are influenced by things far more diverse and complicated than the administrative structure of a police department,” Novak says.

The Kansas City Police department said in a statement to KCUR that no matter who the candidates are for mayor, they look forward to continuing in the model that has led to quote, “so many successful partnerships both in Kansas City and across the country.”

Where the Mayoral Candidates Stand:

When asked at a mayoral forum hosted by KCUR in March, candidates had a wide array of opinions on the issue. Some candidates were not directly asked about local control – for those, KCUR referenced statements to other media outlets.

Some support local control outright

Henry Klein: “I'm not going to equivocate on this issue. We must have local control and if you're going to use St. Louis as the poster child for what not to do — we're the only city in the United States that does not have local control,” Klein said at the March forum. “So we've got a whole lot of other cities that we can work with to determine how local control can make sense. We don't have to just follow St. Louis as a model. That's a poor excuse for trying to make sure that our priorities are the police department’s priorities.”

Quinton Lucas: “First of all, I unequivocally stand for local control. I do think it's important that a police department is accountable to the people of a city. I just think fundamentally that's a key step,” Lucas said. “But more to the point when we talk about crime and what grows crime and what breeds crime, it's largely the mass incarceration of a whole set of people. And so one of the biggest steps that I think we need when we talk about the crime issue is actually a criminal justice reform at the local level.”

Most supported local control but did not list it as a top priority

Alissia Canady: “We have to start with local accountability — local accountability meaning we're adequately staffing our police department so they can adequately patrol and protect our community versus just enforcement… We give [KCPD] money, we do not get to direct it. And there's a way we can change that by entering into a contract with them going forward. On the political aspect of it, I will continue to work on that as the next mayor of Kansas City.”

Steve Miller:  “It's time that we consider that question again. St. Louis went forward and changed the governance … The implementation didn't go well and it didn't make a difference in outcomes. So I think the question here as mayor that I'll take on is, yes, we ought to entertain that, but the question is we shouldn't do change for the sake of change.”

Scott Wagner: “If we have the responsibility for funding the police department, I believe we should have the authority to run it. I'm not going to tell you that we're going to run down to Jefferson City and get that done,” Wagner said at KCUR's forum. “At the end of the day, whether you're in Chicago or Atlanta or Detroit or anywhere else where you have local control and their (crime) numbers are just as bad as ours, let me tell you, local control isn't alone the problem and it isn't alone the solution.”

Jolie Justus: “I am in favor of a police board. I am open to the conversation about how that police board is appointed,” Justus said. “So I'm happy to have the conversation about whether it's a state appointment or a local appointment. I think we need to talk about the details because the devil's always in the details and I think that every eight years we should have that conversation.”

Others said it was not worth the time and energy right now

Scott Taylor: “We would spend a lot of political capital in Jefferson City and may not even get it done. If we're going to use political capital up in Jefferson city, I'd rather use it on reasonable restrictions like background checks and things that really would help the community. I'm more focused on getting more police officers on the street for community policing because when we really have community policing, it's proactive,” Taylor said at KCUR’s forum.

Phil Glynn: “The truth is, we already have local control over the things that we need to do to make our city safer,” Glynn said. “I don't want to have a debate about governance structure. I don't want to have a debate about control because we have control over the ability to invest more dollars in affordable housing, not luxury high rises downtown. We can invest in the creation of quality jobs that our people have the skills to get and build a transportation that helps our citizens get to work.”

Jermaine Reed: “I have not made a decision personally about local control. I think that it is an issue that we as a community [should decide],” Reed told The Pitch in March. “ I would plan to have a task force, but it's not something that I as the mayor should champion in one way or the other. I often say, ‘If it's not broke, don't fix it.’”

And one was flat-out against it

Vincent Lee: “We are not ready to do anything to deal with the police department. The bottom line, KC police department going to stay right where you are.”

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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