Mayors in Kansas City long have complained about a lack of control over the police department. But the truth is more nuanced. While Kansas City mayors thankfully do not have the raw political control that mayors elsewhere do, they are not as powerless over policing as some seem to suggest. What they do seem to be lacking during this year’s long spike in homicides, however, is willpower.
In 1939 the power to appoint members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners was given to the governor in order to combat rampant local corruption. Kansas City is the only major city in United States whose local elected political leadership does not control the police. In speaking with several former members of the Board of Police Commissioners—appointed by different governors and serving at different times with different mayors—I learned that governors are not all powerful nor are mayors powerless.
First, the observation that the Kansas City police department lacks local control is misleading. Members of the commission, including a seat reserved for the sitting mayor, are all local figures who must be residents of Kansas City. The tradition for appointing commissioners is to choose people who already have distinguished themselves in the community—thus reducing the chance that people use their position as a political platform. And while the appointments are made by the governor with Senate approval, none of the former commissioners with whom I spoke ever felt as if they were serving a gubernatorial agenda. Some reported hearing from the governor’s office about every 12 to 18 months, and then just to be kept abreast of lawsuits. Despite the power of appointment, Republican and Democrat governors alike do not exercise significant authority over the KC police in practice.
While the police board provides local control, they do not represent local political control. In other cities, police chiefs must be wary of municipal politics and palace intrigue that can only distract them from their main concern: public safety. In Kansas City, police chiefs are a step removed from politics because they do not owe their position directly to elected officials.
None of this is to say that the mayor does not have a significant amount of power. Commissioners all indicated that there was deference given to the various mayors who served on the commission—even though their level of participation varied. For example, Mayor Funkhouser was engaged in police processes. Mayor Berkeley was attentive but passive. Mayor Barnes’ attendance was sporadic and picked up toward the end of her tenure.
Though Kansas City has a city manager form of government, the mayor has one power that researchers have found is among the most consequential any mayor can have: the veto. While a mayoral veto can be overridden by the vote of 9 councilmembers, it presents him with a great deal of influence over legislation—including the budget of each city department. What greater power over local policing could there be than the budget?
If a mayor wanted the police department to hire more social workers, hire more uniformed officers and/or provide more and different training, decrease the number of officers with take-home cruisers, or increase foot patrols and community policing, he has a great amount of leverage to do so. The power of the purse makes the mayor a more consequential figure than any single governor, any single police board commissioner, any single police chief. No Missourian has more power over policing in Kansas City than the mayor—should he wish to use it.
The current extraordinary challenge to public safety requires an extraordinary response from city leaders. The tools are in place—but will we have the leadership?