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Kansas City Officials Say Getting Local Control Of The Police Department Will Be A Priority In 2021

The Kansas City Police Department is currently overseen by a board appointed by the governor.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3 file photo
The Kansas City Police Department is currently overseen by a board appointed by the governor.

The measure still needs to be approved by the full city council and would face an uphill battle getting the needed buy-in from state lawmakers.

Kansas City is looking to get local control of the police department during the Missouri legislative session.

Currently, Missouri’s governor appoints members of the board who oversee the police department and make decisions like whether to fire the police chief.

Activists have long called for a move away from the system adopted in the late 1930s to combat the Pendergast political corruption. Protests over police brutality brought renewed attention to the cause. While Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas scrapped plans in August to put the issue to a citywide vote, the move by a city council committee Tuesday to pass a list of lobbying priorities including local control of KCPD signals a commitment to the issue.

“I think it's a necessary step in the right direction for meaningful and systemic change in policing in Kansas City,” attorney and activist Stacy Shaw said. “Right now, our board of police commissioners is not accountable to the public by any means.”

In order for the city to have a say in who’s on the board, the state legislature would have to change the law or there would need to be a statewide vote on the matter launched by a citizen petition.

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith has stood by the current governing board. Smith wrote in a 2019 post that it has “served the people of Kansas City well for 80 years.”

A KCPD spokesman said in an email that "if this were to change, we would adapt and adjust at the direction of the Board in whatever form is decided upon by the state and local lawmakers."

Lucas said with violent crime on the rise, the city needs to take a step to repair community-police relations.

“How do we limit this terrible rise in non-fatal shootings and homicides? How do we make sure we're building trust between the police and our community, particularly communities of color,” Lucas said. “That's why you have that priority here.”

Lucas said he doesn’t think the measure would be likely to pass the state legislature, and Councilman Kevin McManus called it an “uphill battle.”

“We’ll hit it this year. We’ll go with it next year if we need to, and we’ll continue to pursue both a statewide initiative,” Lucas said. “I continue to support a local initiative long-term just to see where the voters of Kansas City would stand on such an issue.”

Newly elected state Sen. Barbara Washington told KCUR in June that she doesn’t expect there to be enough support in the General Assembly for a change in KCPD control.

The current five-member Board of Police Commissioners includes the mayor, a pastor, a private investor, a former federal prosecutor and a retired lawyer with state and federal courtroom experience.

The Special Committee for Legal review passed a list of lobbying priorities Tuesday that also included additional funding for the health department, more support for programs that address the root cause of gun violence and keeping residency requirements for police officers. Missouri lawmakers recently liftedthe residency requirement for St. Louis police. The slate of legislative priorities still needs approval from the full council, which is expected to vote next week.

While the effort to regain local control of the police department has broad support from Black clergy and area civil rights organizations, it is still short of more drastic reforms called for by some activists, like redirecting police funding to health departments and schools.

Ryan Sorrell, the co-founder of the activist group Black Rainbow, said getting local control is a “good first step.”

“But generally our priority is in reducing the amount of technology, resources and funding that the police have at their disposal,” Sorrell said.

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