“Governance of the KCPD is an atavistic vestige of slavery and Jim Crow that does not foster public confidence and trust. The stakeholders whose tax dollars fund the department lack the power to redress the KCPD’s incompetence and deficiencies. Despite the abysmal clearance rate, the BOPC maintains the status quo. As a result, the community is disillusioned by its disenfranchisement and the department’s incompetence. Victims of violent crime who lack confidence that the perpetrators will be brought to justice take matters into their own hands contributing to an escalating cycle of violence.” — Kansas City civil rights leaders to Attorney General Merrick Garland
In 2019, officers of the Kansas City Police Department investigating a traffic accident stormed into the backyard of Cameron Lamb’s home and shot him dead as he was backing his truck into his garage. Those officers, never prosecuted, still are on the force.
In 2020, a KCPD officer shot Donnie Sanders in the back as he fled from a traffic stop. The officer, who was not wearing a body camera, and who falsely claimed Sanders had a gun, was neither disciplined nor reprimanded.
Last year, Malcolm Johnson was shot execution-style in the head while face down on the ground with several police officers on his back. Officers allege that Johnson had a gun and shot an officer in the leg, but video captured at the scene raises questions about their account.
The list of similar incidents is appallingly long. KCPD officers have used deadly force more often than 98% of similarly-sized departments, killing 36 people between 2012 and 2020. A Black person was more than four times as likely to be killed by police as a white person in Kansas City from 2013 to 2020. Does this staggering use of deadly force make the KCPD more effective? Far from it. The department has cleared or solved only two out of every 10 violent crimes and placed 495th out of 500 of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. But the citizens of Kansas City, 30% of whom are Black, have little recourse because of a racist policy dating to the Jim Crow era that gives a state board control of the city’s police force.
This week, the National Urban League took our 21 Pillars Tour — a nationwide initiative to promote our common-sense framework for safe and effective law enforcement — to Kansas City. Watch the event here: https://nul.org/program/police-reform. We heard heartbreaking stories from the survivors of KCPD racism and violence. We engaged in substantive discussions with members of the law enforcement community. And we reiterated our wholehearted support for the tireless activists and advocates who are working to bring about much-needed reforms, most notably Urban League of Kansas City President and CEO Gwen Grant.
Grant, who helped lead a successful effort to oust former KCPD Chief Rick Smith, is suing to release the department from state control and has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the department’s disturbing patterns of misconduct, discrimination and violence against communities of color.
As Grant explained in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, “During the Civil War, Missouri never seceded, but it was mostly sympathetic to the Confederacy. St. Louis, however, was Union-leaning. Claiborne Jackson, Missouri’s segregationist governor, didn’t want St. Louis to control its own arsenal, so in 1861, he encouraged the state legislature to pass the ‘Metropolitan Police Bill’ that gave the state control of St. Louis’s police department … one state representative called the bill ‘an effort to disenfranchise and oppress the people of St. Louis because they were not sound on the Negro question.’ One of Jackson’s appointees to the first police board confirmed that it was ‘adopted to enable our people to control St. Louis.'”
In 1874, the state also seized control of the Kansas City force. The Missouri Supreme Court declared the Kansas City Board of Police unconstitutional in 1932, but another segregationist governor, Lloyd Crow Stark, reinstituted the board in 1939.
St. Louis took back control of its police force in 2013, leaving Kansas City the only city in Missouri, and the only major city in the United States, without local control of its own police department.
For Kansas City, the Jim Crow era persists.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.