The Massive Gap in Our Understanding of Why KC Doesn’t Control Its Own Police Department

The local press has produced various articles on why Kansas City does not control its own police department, with mixed explanatory success. The fact that the governor of Missouri selects almost the entirety of the KC board of police commissioners, whereas all other cities in the state form their own boards, no doubt inspires many confused and angry internet searches. Local control is step one of police reform here — the KCPD will not reform itself, and the deeply conservative state legislature will be of no assistance; both these bodies are desperate to keep control out of the hands of the relatively progressive city council. Pieces on how this absurd state of affairs came to be offer valuable information, but what is also needed is an article on what we don’t know. This is admittedly risky, as it’s possible someone knows the answers to the nagging questions herein, but if that’s the case then his or her historical research is itself difficult to find, or at least it has been for me.

Some articles, such as the one from FOX 4, only speak of 1930s Kansas City and the need to wrest police control away from mob boss Tom Pendergast. The Beacon focuses solely on this, yet notes that first Pendergast had to weasel control away from the state, without further comment. More outlets barely seem to realize that the Pendergast story is less important if Kansas City had state control before that; The Pitch and KCUR write that state management began in 1874, when the KCPD was first formed, but still focus on 1932-1939, when Tom ran it. The Star does a little better, explaining that during the Civil War, Missouri was one of the slave states that did not join the Confederacy, but sought to prevent arms and munitions in St. Louis from being used for Union purposes by seizing control of the St. Louis police department (local control was given back in 2013). The same set-up — a governor-decided board — was then used for Kansas City in 1874.

Little more is said, though this isn’t fully the fault of the journalists. It could be that no historian, professional or amateur, has researched the circumstances of 1874. Why was the St. Louis model used for Kansas City? Who were the key players? What motivated them to take their positions, whether for or against? And many other questions. Journalists typically have little time to turn around a story; if historians haven’t done the work, which can take weeks, months, or years, the article may not be properly fleshed out. This explains the focus on Pendergast and St. Louis — that’s the information available.

Some may be satisfied with the knowledge that KC’s state of affairs has its roots in St. Louis’. That is all that’s needed, after all, to show a link between American white supremacy (the desire to aid the Confederacy, which sought to preserve slavery, by controlling armories) and our lack of local control. This connection is being used in the crucial legal push to reestablish local power. (I will never forgive FOX 4 in that last link, by the way, for its headline “Woman Sues KC Police Board,” as if Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League, was a complete nobody, like some “Woman Eaten By an Alligator in Florida.” Try “Activist,” “Organizer,” “ULKC President” or something.) That historical link is undeniable, but it bothers the historian, and probably a lot of readers, that no further context is available. We want to know more. Say, for example, that those who pushed for state control of KC forces in the 1870s had their own reasons that related to race. Clearly, the Civil War had been over for a decade, but what if — and this is completely made up — they thought the state would be better than the city at keeping black officers off the force? This would be important to know for its own sake, significantly altering the meaning of state control of our police, but could also service the campaign to correct the problem. It would make any “rooted in racism” statement even more powerful; it’s a much more direct connection. Alternatively, of course, there could be an entirely different context. What if — and this is again imaginary — the intentional modeling of KC’s board on St. Louis’ was far less nefarious. Perhaps there were good intentions, even if one disagrees with the policy. Getting control of the police away from the mob in the 1930s might be a later example of this. Maybe the 1874 decision was likewise independent of racial questions. Or what if the city council was so racist someone wanted outside control? We can imagine anything we want, because we don’t know. (Uncovering a more benign motive would certainly be used against the campaign — knowledge, as much as we crave and cherish it, can come with a cost.)

The assumption seems to be that what happened in 1874 was due to mere precedent. In other words, St. Louis had a governor-appointed board of police commissioners, so it was decided KC should be the same without much thought. This is entirely possible, but without further research it could be entirely wrong.

So let’s examine what we do know of the events. We know that in 1874, representative James McDaniels introduced House Bill 866, entitled “An act creating a board of police commissioners, and authorizing the appointment of a permanent police force for the City of Kansas.” Formation and outside administration came at the same time. This language is identical to the act passed for St. Louis in the Civil War era. H.B. 866 (which one can read in its entirety here) passed easily, 92-10. In the Missouri senate, it was then called up by Senator John Wornall, a name Kansas Citians will recognize if they’ve ever driven down a certain road. In that chamber, the vote was 21-0 in favor. This is in contrast to the St. Louis bill, passing 50-32 and 24-8, with plenty of debate, as The Star documented.

Who was James McDaniels? An 1874 book offering short biographies on the members of the Missouri legislature described him as “about twenty-seven years of age” and a native of Vermont. He was a real estate agent in Kansas City, and one of three representatives from Jackson County. The book describes him as a “progressive Democrat,” which marks him as a reformer. Progressives of the late 19th (and early 20th) century tended to seek government solutions to the problems wrought by industrialization and urbanization, like poverty, political machines (that’s what Pendergast had later), and corporate power. A progressive advocating a police force, state-controlled no less, could only be thought of as odd in the context of today’s sensibilities and meanings. With cities growing rapidly, and slums and crime a problem, a larger, more organized police force would have been seen as a fine way to create a better society, at least by someone like McDaniels. However, without more information, we simply do not know McDaniels’ true motives. Overall, his time in the legislature was brief; he was elected in 1872, served for a couple years, got H.B. 866 passed his final year, and disappeared.

What of the ten who voted against the bill? There were two representatives from St. Louis, Truman A. Post and Joseph T. Tatum. There was James B. Harper, Radical Republican from Putnam County, who fought for the Union in the Missouri militia. And there was the second representative from Jackson County, Republican Stephen P. Twiss (our third representative did not vote). Twiss grew up poor in Massachusetts but eventually became a lawyer and served in that state’s legislature, according to his (much longer) biography in the 1874 text. It is carefully noted that he “voted for the Hon. Charles Sumner in his second election to the United States Senate” (this was when legislators, not ordinary voters, chose U.S. senators). Sumner was head of the Radical Republicans, the anti-slavery advocates. Twiss moved to Kansas City after the Civil War and, after losing to the Democrat Wornall in a race for Missouri senate, was elected to the Missouri house. Why was Twiss against the bill (so fiercely he tried to repeal it in 1875), when McDaniels and Wornall were for it? As before, note that Republicans shooting down a police force and/or state control must not be thought of as strange here — Republicans and Democrats were very different ideologically in past centuries compared to the modern parties. Overall, eight Republicans voted No, alongside two Democrats. Other Republicans joined the mostly Democratic legislature to pass H.B. 866. So maybe that hints at something. Those generally against the bill were Republicans, who were generally against slavery. But whether the bill had any motives connected to post-war racial politics, we do not know.

I had hoped to offer more information than just the key players, but it became clear rather quickly that this would require weeks, months, or years. Perhaps I will circle back to this if I have the time and energy for such a project. So many vital questions linger — we still know next to nothing. Why did McDaniels base his bill on St. Louis’? Was it mere precedent and ease? “That’s how it was done before, and how it passed before, so why not?” Or were there political motives? Did the city council agree with the legislation? Did the more primitive police forces that existed before the formation of the KCPD, such as the sheriff and deputies, agree with it? Why did Twiss vote against it and try to have it repealed? Was he against a police force itself, against state control, or both? Or did he dislike some other aspect of the plan? Why did the third Jackson County rep, James R. Sheley, abstain from voting? Why did two St. Louis legislators vote Nay? Did they sympathetically oppose state power over another police force, frustrated by their own city’s experience, or was there another reason? Why did Republicans oppose the legislation? Does a large majority voting for the bill in both chambers mean there wasn’t much debate on it?

To answer these questions, one must put on the historian’s helmet. We’ll have to track down the journals and diaries of all those actors, in historical archives or by finding their descendants. Newspapers from the 1870s will have to be located and studied in the archives for stories of these votes and debates. We’ll need more government records, if they exist. And did any secondary sources, such as books, comment on these things later? These are huge ifs — even if these items were created, they may not have survived nearly 150 years. McDaniels, perhaps the most important person in the story, does not appear to have been a man of prominence, and will likely prove difficult to study. Twiss is a bit easier to find, as he became a judge and ran for KC mayor (and in the 1850s may have helped found the Republican Party). His (theoretical) documents could have been better preserved. Wornall’s, too. Hopefully this writing aids whoever undertakes this endeavor, whether my future self or someone else.

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