Kansas City is the only major city in the country whose police force is controlled by the state. There is a two-word answer to the question of why this is so. Those two words are “Tom Pendergast.”
Elected to no office, “Boss Tom” effectively ran Kansas City from 1911 to 1939. It was not until 1932, however, that Pendergast was able to prove the wisdom of Lord Acton’s famed caveat: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
A surprise decision by the Missouri Supreme Court made this possible. For the previous 50 years, KCPD operated under the authority of a Board of Police Commissioners appointed by the Missouri governor.
For some years prior to 1932, City Manager Henry McElroy had challenged the board for budgetary control, indeed for control in general. In March 1932, the court sided with McElroy and turned control of the Police Department over to the city.
The City Council promptly passed an ordinance making the police a department of city government. Under the ordinance, the police chief reported directly to McElroy, which was fine with Boss Tom, since McElroy reported directly to him.
The Home Rule era lasted seven years.
It was no sane person’s idea of a golden age. As local historian Bill Worley observed, “Police controlled by City Hall ultimately gave free rein to Pendergast and the machine, along with a sense of invulnerability.”
Things spiraled out of control rather quickly, and 1933 has gone down in history as the “wide open” year. McElroy’s own daughter Mary could attest to that. In May, a crew of kidnappers snatched the 25-year-old from her bubble bath. She was released after McElroy paid a hefty ransom. It was that kind of year.
Three weeks later, the year’s most celebrated bit of lawlessness played out at Union Station. Likely orchestrated by Pendergast ally Johnny Lazia, the “Kansas City massacre” resulted in the death of three Kansas City police officers, an FBI agent, and the prisoner whose impending transfer to Leavenworth prompted the fireworks.
The everyday rackets, however, were responsible for eroding the social fabric of the city—prostitution and gambling most notably. Once confined to the speakeasies, gambling spread, as Worley notes, “into department stores, drug stores, and mom-and-pop grocery stores.” Those were the days.
The year 1934 was in many ways worse than 1933. Not only was it the hottest year in Kansas City to that point—1936 would be even hotter, with 53 days over 100 degrees—but it was the most politically chaotic since the Civil War.
If Pendergast could not control the physical climate, he surely did control the political climate. On Election Day in March 1934, hoodlums cruised from polling place to polling place soliciting votes the old fashioned way—with bat and gun.
The Associated Press captured the gist of the 1934 election thusly: “Big Tom Pendergast’s Democratic machine rode to overwhelming victory today after a blood-stained election marked by four killings, scores of sluggings and machine-gun terrorism.”
The mayhem continued for five more years all but unchecked until the IRS caught up with Pendergast in 1939. With Boss Tom’s downfall, the governor was able to get a law passed that returned control of the KCPD back to the state. Since then, the mayor of Kansas City gets just one vote on a five-member board, whose other members are appointed by the governor. UI
n 2019, virtually all the mayoral candidates pushed for Home Rule, Mayor Quinton Lucas most forcefully. “I unequivocally stand for local control,” Lucas told KCUR at the time. “I do think it’s important that a police department is accountable to the people of a city.”
In recent weeks, Lucas has doubled down on that stance, and few dare say otherwise. Long time police commissioner Alvin Brooks is among those who support Lucas’s position based on the premise that “we’re far from being another Pendergast or mafia era.”
But are we? Truth be told, Kansas City is more of a one-party town than it was in 1932. And in the ’30s, there were countervailing forces to one-party control. These have largely disappeared.
The Kansas City Star, once a powerful force for reform, now contents itself with parroting the party line, calling state control “oppressive and undemocratic.” As to the civic leaders who opposed Pendergast, well, their heirs have for the most part moved to Kansas. So, for that matter, have the editorialists at the newspaper.
Proponents of Home Rule look to what St. Louis has done. They just don’t look too closely. In 2012, Missouri voters approved the return of the St. Louis police to city officials after 150 or so years of state control.
“Local control will make our city better and safer for generations to come,” said Mayor Francis Slay in August 2013, when Home Rule went into effect.
Better and safer? The residents of St. Louis might take issue with that boast. In 2014 St. Louis shot to the top of the charts as America’s most murderous city and held onto that dubious honor through 2017.
In the course of the George Floyd unrest last month, four St. Louis police officers were shot—in a single day. Retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn, a 77-year-old African American, was shot and killed responding to an alarm at a shop being looted. Better and safer?
For any number of reasons, including the professionalism of the KCPD and Lucas’ own adroit leadership, Kansas City fared better during the disturbances than just about any other major city in the country.
“Local control has been studied for decades, and the case is now absolutely clear, and irrefutable,” argues The Star’s Dave Helling. “It will bring accountability and responsibility to a department that too often acts as if it’s immune to meaningful citizen oversight,”
Sure, I’ll buy that. Now try to convince the people who already enjoy local control, like the citizens and business people of St. Louis—or, for that matter, Minneapolis.