The History of Oversight in Kansas City
Late on a cold February night in 1967, an African-American male named John Smith,* was travelling home from work when he was detained by an officer of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department (“Department”) for traffic infractions. The end of this police contact resulted in Mr. Smith being beaten, hospitalized and cited for careless driving, failure to obey a lawful police order and resisting arrest.
At this time in our history, the citizens of Kansas City had no form of redress against alleged misconduct by an officer. Each time an incident of this nature would occur, it would create racial tension, bitterness and disharmony between the police and in the minority community. Additionally, there had been many allegations of improper treatment, brutality or excessive force or other wrongful conduct by the police towards minorities, especially African-Americans. The Kansas City, Missouri Board of Police Commissioners (“Board”), a group of citizens appointed by the Governor of Missouri, was not attuned to the problems and the needs of the community and did not act on the complaints of the community.
In Mr. Smith’s case he was fortunate to have local Kansas City attorney Sidney Willens represent him on the criminal charges and before the Board. Even though Attorney Willens had many racial and legal battles to overcome, he successfully defended Mr. Smith, resulting in the prosecutor dismissing the charges and the subject officer being disciplined. Even though he had won Mr. Smith’s case, he knew this issue would surface again and again (and it did – Kansas City had riots in the spring of 1968) until some mechanism was put into place to adequately handle complaints of police abuse and misconduct. Attorney Willens undertook the project of researching and studying grievance machinery in other cities. After many long hours, he came up with a detailed set of recommendations to establish a civilian complaint review board to which an individual could register a complaint against an officer. In a letter dated February 26, 1969, which accompanied his proposal to then-Chief of Police Clarence M. Kelley, Attorney Willens summarized the considerable dissatisfaction with the manner in which the Department responded to complaints brought forth by the community.
The innovative mechanism proposed by Attorney Willens stirred a great deal of controversy in Kansas City. Since there were so many diverse opinions about the complaint concept, the Board held public meetings to allow input from the entire community. Many citizens and civil rights organizations endorsed the complaint process and perceived it as a means to abate the racial tension and bridge the ever-widening gap between the community and the police. However, some citizens, including members of the Department, were against the proposal because they thought it was unnecessary and would negatively affect the morale of the officers. This debate went on for months, with some citizens even advocating that a public referendum be held to decide the matter.
Nevertheless, on September 5, 1969, the Board voted and adopted Attorney Willens’ proposal and several procedures established by the New York City Civilian Employees Complaint system as the new complaint process for Kansas City. At this time, the Board described the general composition of the entity which would handle the complaints – the Office of Citizen Complaints. After the Board held two additional public meetings, the Office of Citizen Complaints officially opened its doors on September 25, 1969.
The history of the Office of Citizen Complaints probably mirrors that of other civilian review systems, in that it was a turbulent and arduous undertaking. However, those in Kansas City who challenged the Department and the Board felt it was important to effectuate a complaint process because over the years it has assisted in facilitating understanding and conciliation between the citizen and the police. Furthermore, over fifty (50) years ago, those pioneers believe the complaint process restored the citizens’ confidence in the Department and reduced the racial tension which was plaguing Kansas City.
Today, the Office of Citizen Complaints continues to be free of any police control and operates under the authority of the Board of Police Commissioners. The Office utilizes the same approach which was implemented in 1969 to impartially and effectively review complaints. Additionally, the Office changed its name from the Office of Citizen Complaints to the Office of Community Complaints in 2004, to ensure all persons, regardless of their legal status in the community, had the ability to file a complaint. Further, the Office remains committed to its primary purpose and mission: to protect the community from the possibility of abuse of conduct on the part of police officers, and at the same time protect the police officers from unjust and unfair allegations which may be made by the community.
Currently, the Office is made up of five employees. The Office is charged with the processing of complaints which fall into the categories of Bias-Based Policing, Discourtesy, Excessive Use of Force, Harassment, Improper Member Conduct, or Improper Procedure. The Office reviews an average of 300 complaints per year and makes recommendations to the Chief of Police, who by Missouri State Statute is the sole issuer of disciplinary action. A recommendation can be one which sustains the complaint against the department member, or one which exonerates him.
The Office guarantees the Kansas City community that all complaints will be expeditiously mediated, conciliated, or investigated, fairly and thoroughly analyzed, and properly remedied when there is a violation by an officer. This impartial resolution of complaints is meant to assist in maintaining the creditable public image characteristic of the Department and to improve the relationship between the Department and the community it serves.
The Office was proud to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in September 2019, and is the oldest continually operating oversight agency in the United States. We are very proud of the Office’s history and are grateful to Attorney Willens for his commitment to create a fair and impartial mechanism for redress of grievances for all members of the community.
* Fictitious name