KANSAS CITY • They are the only two city police departments in the nation controlled by a state governor.
Yet while St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay battles in the Missouri Legislature to regain oversight of his city's police, many Kansas City leaders are indifferent.
Why no clamor for local control from the west side of the state?
Observers offer explanations ranging from differences in the two cities' governing structures to a lack of leadership from an unpopular mayor to an absence of the scandals that have rocked the St. Louis Police Board of Police Commissioners.
"If it's not broke, why fix it?" Councilman Bill Skaggs said, repeating a line used by numerous Kansas City leaders.
Even the two men vying in Kansas City's mayoral election Tuesday say they see no immediate need to take charge of the department.
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Supporters of local control, however, point to a murder rate that - like that of St. Louis - ranks among the nation's highest. They also note the department's troubled relations with minorities and the more than $2 million a year that could be saved just by combining police and city health insurance.
"Kansas City lives in a state of blissful oblivion, hoping this issue won't come to a head," said Barbara Shelly, a member of The Kansas City Star's editorial board, which for years has advocated for local control. "They take refuge in the hope that if they ignore it, it will go away."
Local control advocates in both cities say it comes down to accountability. Each city provides tens of millions of dollars a year to fund the police departments, but city officials claim they have little say in how the police operate.
"It's certainly not that the police department is bad or evil," said Jim Rowland, a former Kansas City councilman who ran unsuccessfully for mayor on a platform that called for local control. "We just really have no idea how the $200 million gets spent."
The 1874 state law that established the Kansas City department called for it to be overseen by a three-person board. But in 1932, a city council controlled by political boss Tom Pendergast approved a home-rule ordinance that brought the department under city governance.
For the next seven years, to stay in political favor, police ignored Pendergast's illegal voting schemes and his primary sources of money: gambling, prostitution and saloons. The wide-open city became a haven for gangsters. By 1939, the federal government had cracked down, Pendergast was in prison and the police were back under state control.
St. Louis lost its department at the outbreak of the Civil War when a Confederate-leaning governor tried to guarantee that the police did not fall under the sway of pro-Union forces in the city.
Both departments now are overseen by boards comprising the mayor and four city residents appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.
Opponents of local control in St. Louis fear that the city will raid the police pension fund and that local politicians will meddle in department affairs.
Slay began agitating for return of the department to city control about five years ago. Last year, voters overwhelmingly supported a nonbinding referendum on the issue.
"The police department exists to make our neighborhoods safer," said Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff. "That ought to be the first and last consideration. ... It seems our commissioners believe they represent themselves or the department and not the taxpayers who are paying the bills, and that's created a real disconnect."
Lack of a similar fervor for local control in Kansas City is due in part to the lack of a high-profile champion, said Gwendolyn Grant, longtime head of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
"It doesn't make any sense," she said. "There are so many reasons we should do it. It's a model that has outlived its relevance."
Outgoing Mayor Mark Funkhouser said that during his four years in office, he chose to work within the existing system favored by the police department and the city's power structure. His priority was to address the crime problem, not change how the department was governed.
"I didn't want to fight to have to get there," Funkhouser said. "And it is a fight."
And unlike Slay, who has the power to hire and fire department heads, Funkhouser pointed out that he is just one of 13 votes in Kansas City's weak-mayor form of government. He said he would have supported local control wholeheartedly if it meant he chose the chief and controlled policy.
But many observers speculated that voters would have been reluctant to hand any more power to Funkhouser, who proved hugely unpopular. He became the first Kansas City mayor since the 1920s to lose a re-election bid in the primary.
Yael Abouhalkah, another Star editorial board member, said that without a local champion, the city had little chance of winning support in Jefferson City, where Kansas City is perceived to have little influence. And he believes state lawmakers from the area would be reluctant to relinquish any power over the state appointments anyway.
"It's a plum that the local delegation gets to reward their followers," he said.
State Sen. Jolie Justus, whose district includes part of Kansas City, said the current system worked well but was open to potential changes. Most voters she talks to aren't even aware that police commissioners, most of whom she said were well known in the community, are appointed by the governor.
"They don't think of it as Jefferson City running the show," Justus said.
Community activist Clinton Adams said many elected officials had told him local control was simply out of the question. "It's because the police department is a sacred cow and politicians are loathe to challenge them," Adams said.
With so many other pressing needs, many say there is little passion for the debate.
"I think if they had a vote on it and both sides were well-financed it would be a tie," longtime political contributor James Nutter Sr. said. "People just don't think it's an issue."
GOOD AND BAD
In a conference room in his law firm offices overlooking the Country Club Plaza shopping district, Kansas City Police Board Chairman Pat McInerney defended the status quo.
What does local control really mean?
"It means political control," said McInerney, a former federal prosecutor. "That's what we're talking about - City Hall control of the police department. I don't know what the merits are in St. Louis, but I know the merits in Kansas City break against that because this is a system and a governance structure that works."
As evidence, McInerney cited recent reorganizations of the Kansas City department's violent crime and homicide units. The police board demanded the changes after criticizing the department for clearing only about half of its homicide cases, he said.
McInerney said citizen satisfaction with the department routinely rated high. And he said the Kansas City board had avoided some of the "drama and controversy" that has embroiled the St. Louis board, which in recent years has come under fire for everything from a commissioner's intervening in a relative's arrest to a scandal involving police towing.
"I don't pretend to have my head in the sand and to think that Kansas City ought to stand apart from every other city in the country when it comes to law enforcement," McInerney said. "But I know for us, this structure works."
Kansas City Police Chief Jim Corwin declined to be interviewed for this story but has said in the past that no one is concerned with the way the department is governed.
To arguments such as those, Rowland, the former city councilman, responds with "106."
That's the number of murders in Kansas City in 2010.
"They say, ‘Well, it's working,' " Rowland said of the current system. "Well, it's working for some folks. It's not working for everyone. I'd say there's 106 families it's not working for, at the very least."
Others point to mismanagement of seized money, problems with officer misconduct and a Department of Justice investigation into the department's minority hiring and promotion practices as further evidence of the need for change.
"Because we don't control it, they can just ignore us," Rowland said.
And unlike a mayor or city council member who can be judged at the ballot box, critics say voters have no ability to vote out police board members.
But McInerney disagreed that accountability can be achieved only through elections.
"Believe me, my in-box and voice mail get filled up by citizens, by police officers, by persons who are concerned about how the department operates," he said. "And we respond to those."
Eventually, Kansas City may have no choice but to change. Most think if St. Louis succeeds in its bid for local control, Kansas City will soon follow.