Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Department's current form of governance is best

We already are under local control, we’re shielded from political corruption, we use taxpayer dollars in the most efficient way possible, and we are responsive to the community.

I have been Chief of the Kansas City Missouri Police Department since October 2011. I worked here for 26 years before that in a variety of positions and have lived in this city my whole life. Like anyone, I brought my experiences and opinions into each new assignment I’ve had on the police department. However, I always made it a point to keep my mind open in each position and learn as much as I could. I took that same attitude with me into the role of Chief. I have learned a great deal and appreciate all who have taught me.
I’ve tried to keep an open mind on one topic in particular: city control of the police department. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. But the more I learn, the more I come to the realization that the current system of police department governance is the best one. The Mayor has established a commission whose stated mission is to determine what form of governance would be best for the police department. I have remained neutral about the topic as I gathered and analyzed facts, but given what I’ve learned and my extensive experience, I now think it’s time I voice my opinion. The best way to govern the department is our current system: a Board of Police Commissioners operating under state statute. This model best meets the needs of our community.

The KCPD is uniquely governed, and that is not a bad thing. Aside from a period of “home rule” from 1932 to 1939 (you can read more about city politics and the corruption of the police department during that time in this background paper from the Citizens Association of Kansas City), the Kansas City Police Department is controlled by a Board of Police Commissioners. The Missouri Governor appoints the members of this board, and those members are confirmed by the State Senate. Local representatives typically recommend members of the Board to the governor’s office. Board members must be residents of Kansas City, Mo. State statutes – written and voted on by elected representatives and senators – provide the rules the police department must follow. The Kansas City Mayor also has a seat on the Board.

Some people have said the KCPD needs to be under “local control.” If the aforementioned process isn’t local control, I don’t know what is. Local residents are recommended by local representatives elected by the people, chosen by an elected governor and confirmed by local state senators, also elected by Kansas City residents. The mayor – also elected by residents – is a commissioner, as well. Everyone who is in control of the police department lives in Kansas City, Mo.

The issue really in question is city control of the police department, not local control.

I urge you to consider the question, “How would not being governed by state statute improve police services?” According to the Citizens Association of Kansas City, which has hosted public forums on everything from city control of the police department to remodeling Kansas City International Airport, “The Board and Department have functioned as intended, scandal-free for 74 years. Governors of both parties have appointed recognized civic leaders. … The Department is highly regarded nationally, in large part because its board of governance is free from political pressures.”

Coming under city control always has brought with it the concerns of re-opening the door to political corruption within the police department. The current system shields our department from such corruption. Wouldn’t anyone want those charged with enforcing laws to be as free from political influence as possible? Police officers always should be free to do what is best for the safety of the city without fear of repercussion from elected officials. Police should be able to devote their resources to the areas of greatest need as determined by data and community input, not where an elected official requests officers to be for personal or political reasons.

My peers in charge of other major city police departments envy the way KCPD operates. Every election time, their organizations go into limbo. The whole direction of their department could change with the whims of new city council members or mayors, and the chiefs themselves could be ousted. We are fortunate in Kansas City to be able to build our policing strategy on data and best practices. We have the flexibility to meet the changing needs of the community, and I am able to freely express my opinion without fear of reprisal. I ask others to express their opinion on this important matter, as well.

Some have said it is unfair for the city to be required to fund the police department and not have a say in how the money is spent. All city departments, from Fire to Public Works, decide how to allocate their own budgets. The police are no exception. The Board of Police Commissioners annually submits a request for funds to the City Manager, and the manager and City Council ultimately hammer out how much money the Police Department receives. We are as responsible to tax-payers with our money as any other public entity. In fact, I challenge anyone to show a place where we are not responsible with our funds. Feel free to review our budget any time on our web site. We get criticized for taking up 46 percent of the city’s general fund budget. That is a significant amount, but consider that the general fund is only 31 percent of the city’s overall budget. And year after year, the Citizen Satisfaction Survey shows residents want public safety to be the city’s top funding priority.

Proponents of city control say it will save money through consolidation. This isn’t true. If the city currently has enough human resources or information technology staff to handle an additional 2,000 employees (the size of the police department), then they have too many people. The same number of total positions will be required to support the combined number of employees. The department also would lose $1 million annually from the State of Missouri’s Legal Defense Fund through city control. The city would have to take on that responsibility. It also would have to shoulder the cost of the services currently provided by the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which defends civil claims filed against the department and our members. It is difficult to place a dollar figure on these services, but the loss would cost the department and city a substantial sum in attorney’s fees and expenses.

We have a great working relationship with city officials and city departments. Our staff is constantly in communication with them, and we work together on a very regular basis.

Some people say city control would make police more accessible and responsive to residents. I would argue that police are more responsive and accessible to residents than any other segment of city government. Our staff has the most direct contact with citizens in the course of their duties. Officers attend innumerable community meetings, and we have seven officers whose specific assignment is to be a liaison between the community and the department. We have an Office of Community Complaints (also composed of Kansas City residents) that is charged with investigating misconduct of department members, as reported by the public. The OCC answers only to the Board of Police Commissioners, not to me or anyone else on the department. Residents also are welcome to make comments at Board meetings. We make our records as open and transparent as possible. We also are internationally recognized for our community engagement through social media.

Another argument for city control is that we are the only police department governed by a state-appointed board, and being the only one must be bad. Being unique isn’t a negative thing. The New York City Police Department was unique when it started CompStat 20 years ago. Now this data-based policing practice is used all over the nation. Perhaps our form of governance is a model other police departments should follow. Let’s not follow the so-called leader – let’s be the leader. It is good to be unique. My mother taught me from an early age that it’s OK to be different, and in this case, it’s more than OK.

Our form of governance has served the people of Kansas City well for generations. It shields their police from corruption, fosters accountability and provides the most professional service possible. Our department’s model of governance should be perpetuated for generations to come.