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.
The Kansas City Missouri Police Department is one of only two police departments in the nation (the other is St. Louis, Mo.) governed by a Board of Police Commissioners appointed by the state’s governor. Most other departments are governed by city councils.
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.