Sunday, July 12, 2009

The question of local control

Since 1939, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department has been governed by a Board of Police Commissioners appointed by the governor. The system has worked well ever since, but occasionally the media and others cry out for the police department to be governed by the City, a move they erroneously call “local control.”

I say it’s erroneous because we already have local control. The Police Board is composed entirely of residents of Kansas City – four commissioners appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Missouri Senate – and the Mayor. Most of the commissioners are life-long residents of this city. So, the idea that there's "state" control of the KCPD is wrong. What we do not have is local control by elected politicians who are typically looking to be re-elected or run for higher office and are looking for sources to raise campaign funds.

Except for the Mayor, the four commissioners take an oath of office that removes them entirely from the political process, just like all KCPD employees, who also swear to be removed from politics. We have the best of all worlds – a highly trained police force in which our officers and civilians are barred from engaging in political activity and are governed by a Board that is similarly barred from engaging in political activity. As a result, decisions are made in the best interests of the Police Department and not as a result of political deals.

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 always seem to involve the City Council, the Mayor and the City Manager. It also allows the Chief of Police to call attention to things that he thinks could be a misuse of police department funds, like when the city’s Capital Improvements Management Office quietly siphoned money from the Public Safety Sales Tax fund to settle a Public Works lawsuit.

I am responsible for the entire police operation, including HR functions, budget, purchasing, and the day-to-day issues of the department. If something is not working, the Chief of Police cannot blame another department head for not providing what he needs. This also makes the system more efficient because I have everything I need to get the job done. Also, few directors of other city departments spend six to eight hours a month in front of their bosses – the City Council. If they do, it’s usually about a specific ordinance that is being discussed. I spend six to eight hours monthly before the Board of Police Commissioners talking about the operational issues of the police department. The board members ask questions and require additional work about many of the issues brought before them.

A common argument against our governance system is that we are one of only two major city police departments in the country to operate this way (St. Louis is the other). Does that mean our system is somehow inadequate? Absolutely not. Our mothers would tell us, “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Just because everyone is governed in a different way does not make our model bad. Changing the method of governance is a difficult process. A politician who has control of the police is not likely to give up that control. Our corporate governance insulates the Department from much of the politics that plague and paralyze other police departments around the country. As a result, we have been a national model.

Another common argument is that the Board of Police Commissioners was put in place during a time of rampant corruption – the Tom Pendergast era – and that it is no longer necessary because no such corruption exists today. I beg to differ. Since 1990, five Kansas City Council members have been federally indicted while in office on charges such as taking bribes, violating campaign finance laws, and most recently, mortgage fraud. No Kansas City police commissioner ever has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

While we are 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.

We are exceedingly transparent: all purchases are public record, and any expenditure $100,000 or higher must be approved by the Board of Police Commissioners in a public meeting. The Board also is the policy-making body. All of these policies are approved in an open meeting and occasionally have public input (such as our Taser, car chase, and medical care policies). No other city agency has such a system of allowing the public to comment and be part of the policy-making process. And unless it could impact an investigation, our crime records are open, too.

Our system has served Kansas City well for more than 70 years. It’s a system that provides the best of all worlds: local control by local residents, accountability to a local government and freedom from politics.

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