Citizens Association forum debates local police control

Kansas City Police headquarters on Locust Street in 1950. A new debate over whether to return the police department to local control focuses in part on its history. Photo courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

As a commission studies whether to recommend that Kansas City police return to city control, experts debated it Thursday at a forum.

“In every other city in the country they have local control and in none of those cities are they examining going to state control,” said City Councilman Ed Ford. “What is it that makes a Kansas City resident incapable of governing its police department?”

Karl Zobrist, former police board president, said the system of governor control has worked well for decades and insulates police from politics – things like the Northland wanting just as many police in spite of little crime there.

“Once you give this system up, you will not get it back,” he said.

The arguments were made at the Citizen Association forum at the Downtown library. Among those present was former mayor Kay Barnes, co-chair of the commission studying control of police.

Under the current system, the governor appoints four citizens who serve on the board of police commissioners along with the city’s mayor. They administer police who get 46 percent of the city general fund budget.

The city started with that system in 1874 and stayed with it until home rule in 1932, with some system failures during the Tom Pendergast years. In 1939, a reform governor shocked by violence and graft in the city’s elections got the original system reinstated.

St. Louis also had the governor system but went back to city control after a statewide vote last year approved it by a wide margin. City control goes into effect there in June, and Kansas City will be the only one nationwide with state control of its police.

Steve Glorioso, a political consultant, worked on the St. Louis campaign and argued Thursday for local control.

In St. Louis, it started with a non-binding resolution in which more than 70 percent of its citizens voted to return to local control. The state refused to give up its power until a statewide petition and vote forced it, he said.

“Out of 114 counties, I don’t think it failed anywhere,” he said, and that shows the appeal of more direct democracy.

Jim Corwin, former police chief, said of a return to local control: “It’s going to be a political bloodbath over the department resources.”

On the other hand, he said, “When people come to the police board, things happen and they happen professionally.”

Glorioso said professionalism would continue with the police chief reporting to the city manager.

Ford said of the current system, “Yes, you are insulated but you’re also insulated from the public by being insulated from their representation…;I think we’ve insulated the police department from the community.”

Advocates of change also argued that combining resources with the city could save money, although Corwin denied that.  The rate of 46 percent of the general fund for police is the norm nationwide, he said.

The 30-member study commission is to make formal recommendations by October.

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