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Missouri forced Kansas City to increase KCPD spending. Locals say it’s time to end state control

Protestors line Mill Creek Parkway near the Plaza in 2021, where Kansas City Police Officer Nicholas McQuillen pepper sprayed a teenage girl.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Protestors line Mill Creek Parkway near the Plaza in 2021, where Kansas City Police Officer Nicholas McQuillen pepper sprayed a teenage girl.

Kansas City has the only police department in Missouri that's under state control. Although voters statewide raised how much of the city's budget must be spent on the KCPD, activists say local opposition to Amendment 4 created an opportunity to put policing decisions back in the city's hands.

In last Tuesday's midterm elections, Missouri voters passed a statewide ballot measure that will require Kansas City to increase its minimum funding to the Kansas City Police Department.

But voters in the Kansas City portion of Jackson County overwhelmingly rejected the amendment by 61%.

That local repudiation of Amendment 4 has reignited conversations among officials, activists and residents about whether it's time to reconsider who has control over the Kansas City Police Department — the state of Missouri, or the city itself.

“I think that that's what it shows is that we have the numbers in Kansas City to start actually standing up for ourselves against this power grab that's coming consistently from the state,” said Dylan Pyles, an organizer with Decarcerate KC, a local grassroots group that campaigned against Amendment 4.

For decades, the state of Missouri has maintained control over KCPD. It’s an unusual governance structure unlike any seen in almost any major U.S. city or any other city in Missouri.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has also signaled his support for local control. He said state control has hampered the city’s ability to be a modern-day police department.

“There is no reason that we still live under this colonial system,” Lucas said. “It was wrong, in my opinion, when it was first created, and it's certainly wrong all these decades later.”

How does state control work? 

The KCPD is governed by a Board of Police Commissioners. Four members are appointed by the governor of Missouri and serve four-year terms. The fifth member is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri.

The board can set department policy and oversee the department’s budget. The board is also in charge of hiring a new police chief.

At the Missouri statehouse, the legislature can pass laws impacting the KCPD. Earlier this year, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law mandating that Kansas City increase its minimum funding of the KCPD from 20% of its general fund to 25%.

That law could not go into effect without voter approval, which led to Amendment 4.

Why Missouri took over local police departments

State control over a local police department has its roots in the start of the Civil War, when Claiborne Fox Jackson became governor of Missouri. He lobbied for Missouri to join the Confederacy, but that effort failed in a state convention.

In 1861, Jackson pushed for the “Metropolitan Police Bill” to put the St. Louis Police Department under state control. At the time, St. Louis was more heavily African American than the rest of Missouri and leaned more toward the Union.

The bill eventually passed, placing the St. Louis Police Department under the control of a Board of Police Commissioners.

In the late 1800s, Missouri seized control of Kansas City’s newly formed police department for similar demographic and political reasons.

That state control continued until 1932, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas City Board of Police was unconstitutional, returning local control to the city.

But Kansas City lost local control again in 1939, after years of political corruption under political boss Tom Pendergast. KCPD has been under state control ever since.

Several avenues to take back the police department

Regaining local control of the KCPD would require changing the Missouri Constitution by passing a law through the legislature, using the state’s ballot initiative process, or challenging state control in the courts.

Lucas said the courts or a ballot initiative offer the clearest paths to win back local control.

Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Kansas City, is challenging state control of the KCPD in a lawsuit that’s currently working its way through the courts.

“State control has not yielded better outcomes for Kansas City. We have a high violent crime rate, and we have a low solve and clearance rate on the part of the police department,” Grant said. “We don't have a say in the policy, so it's very difficult for us to get redress on problems because we don't have control over policy.”

Lucas also sued over the law increasing Kansas City’s funding to the KCPD. Lucas said the court process could take years, with cases possibly going up to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the ballot initiative process has precedent: St. Louis won back local control of its police department via statewide ballot measure in 2012.

Lucas is confident that such a ballot measure would pass.

“One might think you could have a ballot question that says, very simply, ‘Shall all Missourians have local control of their police department? Shall all Missourians have local control through their city councils in terms of how they make budget decisions?’” Lucas said.

Grant said success hinges on educating Missourians about local control. Fundraising will also be key, both to fund a citizen’s petition and to support legal challenges to state control.

“We need to invest in a wide-scale education effort, so that people understand what it means, what not having local control means,” she said.

Missed opportunities for local control 

Local control has eluded Kansas City for decades.

In 1968, a study looking into the causes of local race riots — ones that resulted in the police killings of six Black people, many more injuries and property damage — listed local control of the KCPD as its top recommendation.

Decades later, St. Louis approached Kansas City about joining its efforts to win back local control. But Kansas City ultimately declined.

In 2013, a committee formed by then-Mayor Sly James rejected a plan to get back local control. The recommendation failed by one vote.

Still, Lucas believes Tuesday night was a sign that the tides are changing.

“I think you'll continue to see people fight back, and that's why I predict within 10 years we will have local control in Kansas City,” he said. “Whether it's accomplished through the courts or the ballot box, it will happen.”

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives.
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