Thursday, February 17, 2011

Kansas City’s Board of Police Commissioners: the lost command?

From the KCMO website: “The Board of Police Commissioners has the responsibility of providing police service to the citizens of Kansas City, Missouri as mandated by Missouri State Statute. The Governor of Missouri, with the consent of the State Senate, appoints four citizens to serve on the Board of Police Commissioners. These Commissioners serve four-year terms, with one member’s term expiring each year. The fifth member of the Board is the Mayor of Kansas City, by virtue of elected office. The Secretary/Attorney of the Board is appointed by the Commissioners and acts as legal consultant.”

There are five board members whose bios are here for your information. Governor Jay Nixon appoints four members, the fifth being the mayor.

With recent discussion topics here about the command and control of our police force, it seems appropriate to appreciate the history, system and laws pertaining to the chain-of-command. From the website to save you a few points and clicks:

“History: In the 1920s and 1930s, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department was as much a cog in the Thomas Pendergast Machine as any other public institution in the city. According to a biography published by the Kansas City Public Library, “Posing as a mere businessman, Pendergast ran the city: workers were provided jobs, chosen politicians ran the government, and the entire ‘machine’ made a profit that filled his pockets. Pendergast brought more corruption to Kansas City than anyone in history, but he is also credited with helping the city survive the Great Depression.”

The City Council, heavily swayed by Pendergast, approved a home-rule ordinance in 1932 that brought KCPD under city governance for the first time since its 1874 inception. Previously, it was governed by a board of men appointed by the governor.

From 1932 to 1939, officers looked the other way at illegal gambling, prostitution and saloons – the primary funding sources for Pendergast – to stay in political favor. Police also ignored illegal voting schemes arranged by the Pendergast Machine. Criminals found refuge here, and the money flowed in for Pendergast.

In 1939, Missouri Attorney General Roy McKeltside came down hard on the corruption generated by the Pendergast Machine. Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark had the police department returned to state control under commissioners that he appointed. Thus was reinstated the original form of KCPD governance – a governor-appointed Board of Police Commissioners, and it’s the system we use today. (An historical note: this new Board in 1939 appointed a new police chief, Lear B. Reed, and charged him with rooting corruption out of the force. About 50 percent of KCPD employees were fired at that time.)

Modern advantages of the system: The Board of Police Commissioners is an excellent way to keep politics and corruption out of law enforcement. All police board members are residents of Kansas City, Mo. Four members are appointed by the Missouri governor, and the fifth is the mayor of Kansas City. Aside from the mayor, the board is composed of people who care about their community but are not elected politicians and who typically are not looking to run for office or raising campaign funds. Those four police commissioners, as well as every member of the KCPD, must take an oath not to engage in political activity. Because of this system, decisions are made in the best interest of the Police Department and the public, and not as a result of political deals.

While KCPD is not governed by the City, the City does provide the department with funding, and we work very closely with City staff and City Council members to do what is in the best interest of the community we jointly serve. The Mayor sits on the Board of Police Commissioners, and the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhoods Committee has a spot on the agenda at every Board meeting. Police commanders and others regularly attend city meetings and work on joint projects. Some areas in which we have consolidated functions include radio maintenance, parking control, dispatching, and information technology. The city does control the police through the budget.

Similar to the U.S. Armed Forces, Kansas City’s law enforcement body is a professional civil service-type organization that is respected by all political elements because it is separated from those elements. As a result, both today and in the past, the Department and the Board are not involved in the various political disputes that occur among elected officials. Our system is unique, but we think it’s the best possible way to operate.”

The present system as you’ve read, comes from a time of corruption, an attempt to steer control from the city’s citizens to the office of the governor.

Notice that the statement above compares the Kansas City law enforcement body to the US Armed Forces. But somehow the comparison stops there. Is there really a chain-of-command from serving officer to Governor?

On one hand the military comparison sounds comforting. On the other hand a militaristic police model seems inappropriate and a bit too…military. I see the next step being “contract police” a la the trend in the military with private military security companies…cheaper, leaner, professional, accountable, and profitable too.

Let the discussion continue but it seems to me a law needs changing to change the system. To attack the people serving in the present system appears fruitless and moot.

And lest we forget, those who have fallen in the line of duty deserve our remembrance once in a while along with the thousands of citizens who have fallen while trying to just live.

This is a dangerous city...

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