Search for KC police chief must halt. This is no time to set the department’s future

Last July, The Star published a story detailing dozens of credible claims of racism in the Kansas City Police Department. The Board of Police Commissioners sprang into action, promising to root out discrimination and demanding answers.

Just kidding. The board sat firmly on its hands, which, as all Kansas Citians know, is its typical posture. Board President Mark Tolbert declined repeated requests for comment on the story.

But facts have a stubborn way of influencing events. Last Monday, the U.S. Justice Department said it’s investigating the the KCPD to determine if its hiring and promotion practices, and its workplace environment, are discriminatory and hostile.

As it happens, the police board met the very day the DOJ letter was released. Yet the members did not discuss the probe, according to Mayor Quinton Lucas, the only elected official to serve as a member of the board. Instead, they talked about hiring a permanent police chief.

That’s right. The very people who ignored credible allegations of department racism are now charged with picking a police chief who could serve for a decade. Oh, and the board’s decision is final.

This process needs to change.

Four members of the board are picked by Missouri’s governor. (The fifth is Mayor Lucas.) We can’t recommend that all resign immediately — a five-person board with four new members might disrupt routine operations and make end-of-year budgeting more difficult.

But two current members, Tolbert and Don Wagner, continue to serve on terms that expired more than a year ago. They should play no role in picking a new chief of police. Both should resign their seats immediately, and Gov. Mike Parson should name replacements before the search for a chief continues.

Parson’s nominees should be well-known community members committed to ending racism in the department. They should ensure the new police chief is committed to achieving that goal.

It won’t be easy. The board is currently reviewing applications from internal candidates, who are part of the same discriminatory culture described by dozens of officers and former officers in The Star’s investigation.

“Twenty-five current and former Black officers of various ranks told their own stories of discrimination, racist abuse and a system that forces Black officers out of the department on flimsy pretexts while keeping the upper leadership mostly white,” the newspaper reported in July.

The police board could hire someone from outside of the department. We’ve suggested that approach. Now, any outside chief would have to take the job under the cloud of a federal investigation, which complicates the search.

By all accounts, interim Police Chief Joseph Mabin has done his job well. We can’t recommend he continue in the job until the DOJ’s investigation is complete, however. The probe may last for years, and the board can’t wait that long to find a permanent chief.

No. The best solution is for the search to continue after the two board members serving on expired terms are replaced. New members should bring new perspectives and energy to this critical choice.

Kansas City must get this right. The first job of the new police chief will be restoring trust and confidence in the department, particularly in communities now suffering the most from gun violence and crime. That’s virtually impossible if the same people who couldn’t be bothered to respond to allegations of systemic racism now pick the new chief.

State control of the Kansas City police department is an absurd relic of history, and should have been discarded decades ago. It was not.

Given that, this seems the best alternative: Two new police board members committed to ending department discrimination and finding a chief who will help reach that goal. The search must be suspended until these new voices are heard.