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Kansas City, Missouri, Residents Calling For Local Control Of Police Say Current Governance Only Pro

Protesters go face-to-face with police officers at around 7:35 p.m.
Carlos Moreno
Protesters go face-to-face with police officers at around 7:35 p.m.

Kansas City residents weighed in Tuesday on whether the city should push to regain local control of the police department for the first time in nearly eight decades.

A ballot proposal put forward by Mayor Quinton Lucas would ask voters whether they want to go from a governor-appointed board of commissioners overseeing local police to a model led by the mayor and city council or some other local governance structure.

If it passes, the Missouri legislature would still need to approve the measure.

The move comes months after the nation was convulsed by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer after he was placed under arrest. Since then, protesters across the country and in Kansas City have been calling for an end to police brutality, more accountability from police and a national reckoning on racial justice.

“A state board of commissioners, appointed by the governor and not the people, serves to protect the police department rather than to supervise them,” Kansas City resident Mikayla Dreyer told the city council's committee for legal review on Tuesday.

Dreyer said despite not breaking any laws, she’s been pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed by police five times in five years living in Kansas City, Missouri. She said the current governance structure doesn’t protest Kansas City residents.

“It protects and serves only the reputation of the KCPD,” Dreyer said.

Kansas City currently has a highly unusual setup for its police department. The department gets its funding largely from the city, but it is not directly controlled by the mayor or city council, as most other big-city departments are.

Instead, since the late 1930s, it has been under state control, and the governor appoints a five-member board to oversee it. Mayor Quinton Lucas is part of that board, and the police chief reports to the board, not to the city council or to the city manager.

Attorney Stacy Shaw told city councilmembers she’s heard many accounts of brutality by Kansas City Police from her clients.

“We want to hold you accountable for the performance of the KCPD. We do not want to have to travel to Jefferson City to protest the people who are in charge of the police department,” Shaw said.

But she said the move to put the issue on the ballot was “politically attractive yet ineffective posturing.” Shaw urged city leaders to push for local control now, rather than spend time and resources on an election.

“People who are most at-risk have the least amount of resources to campaign for initiatives that better their lives,” Shaw said.

Matt M. Mitchell, who lives in the Indian Mound neighborhood in northeast Kansas City, provided written testimony in support of local control.

He said while he does not support the current mayor and city council on matters of policing, he called running the police department a “basic job” of municipal government.

“Policing is to be a local matter. And if a city cannot be trusted to police itself, it cannot be free,” Mitchell wrote.

Nicoya Helm also wrote in support of the measure and asked that the council prioritize community input regarding what a new governance structure would be.

“What will oversight look like? How will that oversight include residents’ voices? What models of policing and police budget make the most sense for our city, and how will residents’ voices be made a priority in choosing a model?” Helm wrote.

One of the biggest opponents to local control is the police department itself. Reading a prepared statement from Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith, Deputy Chief Karen True said the current model has served the city well for 80 years.

She also compared Kansas City to St. Louis, which regained local control of its police force in 2013.

“Officers are leaving the department and as of today, they stand at 142 homicides. In fact, overall crime has steadily increased in eight years since the city took control and there is no end in sight,” True said.

Brad Lemon, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, said moving control of the police away from the Board of Police Commissioners leaves the department subject to the political whims of whoever is in power in Kansas City — which is exactly why the state took control of the department from Tom Pendergast's political machine in 1932.

“Putting us in a position where politicians can tell us how to do our job … makes a mistake beyond anything else,” Lemon said.

The city council has until late August to certify the issue for the November ballot.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Lisa Rodriguez is an Community Engagement intern.