Landmark Case: Judge Rules Constitutional Challenge to Kansas City’s “Slave-Era” Policing System to Proceed

Late on the afternoon of May 31, a Jackson County Judge ruled that a lawsuit by long-time civil rights leader Gwendolyn Grant challenging the constitutionality of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners System can move forward.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Grant argues on behalf of the Black community and Kansas City taxpayers that the Board of Police Commissioners system constitutes ‘Taxation Without Representation’ in violation of Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, and also that the system violates the Equal Protection Clause because it was implemented for a discriminatory purpose and has a discriminatory impact on Missouri’s African-Americans.  

“We are pleased with the Court’s ruling,” said Ms. Grant, “but the real fight begins now.” “Since the beginning of the Civil War, citizens in Missouri’s two most heavily African-American cities have been singled out and stripped of local control over their own police. It is amazing and sad that this system—which treats Missouri’s African American population centers one way and all other communities another—persists to this day. The Court’s denial of the Police Board’s motion to dismiss clears the way for a long-overdue constitutional challenge to this antiquated system, and the antiquated values it represents.” 

The Board of Police Commissioners previously filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Ms. Grant’s claims lacked legal merit. On Monday, the Jackson County Circuit Court rejected the Board’s arguments in their entirety, ruling that Ms. Grant’s lawsuit can move forward on all claims.

Pro-Slavery Origins  

Kansas City, Missouri is the only city in Missouri, and the only major city in the United States where the police department is controlled by the state, rather than the local government.  The Kansas City Police Department is run by a five-member Board of Police Commissioners of which four members appointed by the Governor. As a result, the Board and the Kansas City Police Department are responsive to the wishes of Missouri Governors (who are exclusively white) and not to Kansas City residents and elected officials (who are largely African American).

The original Board of Police Commissioners system was conceived by pro-slavery Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson on the eve of the Civil War. A focus of Jackson’s efforts was the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis, which contained a large amount weapons and ammunition that Jackson sought to control on behalf of the Confederacy.

The St. Louis police force was the largest quasi-military organization in the state, and control of the St. Louis police was a step toward control of the Arsenal. To that end, in March of 1861 (the month before open hostilities broke out at Fort Sumter), the first “Metropolitan Police Bill” was introduced in the Missouri legislature, under which the St. Louis police force would be controlled by a board of Commissioners appointed by the Governor. 

The Board of Police Commissioners system has only ever been deployed in two Missouri cities—Kansas City and St. Louis—which just so happen to be the two Missouri cities with the highest African-American populations.

Thus, African-American Missourians are disproportionately deprived of an opportunity to exert control over the police in their communities based on a system that was literally conceived in furtherance of slavery. St. Louis managed to abolish its Board of Police Commissioners a few years ago. However, the Board of Police Commissioners system persists in Kansas City to this day.   

Ms. Grant has argued that this system violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it was conceived for a discriminatory purpose and has a discriminatory impact on African-Americans. The Court has now ruled that those claims can proceed.  

Taxation without representation  

Although the Board of Police Commissioners is appointed by the Governor and is a state agency, the City is required by law to provide whatever funds the Board requests, up to 20% of the City’s general revenue. This Spring, the General Assembly passed a bill that would raise that figure to 25%. That bill currently awaits the Governor’s signature.  

The Hancock Amendment protects Missouri cities from being forced by state agencies to perform services, increase their scope of work, or allocate funds that they were not required to allocate before the Amendment took effect on December 4, 1980—unless the state provides that municipality additional funding to cover additional services the state is asking the city to perform.   

The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners—a state-run Board—consistently requests and receives more funding annually than what the City was required to allocate to the Board on December 4, 1980.  

Last year, the city finally pushed back against the Board’s funding requests and was promptly sued by the Board. Ms. Grant, withstanding as a Kansas City taxpayer, has sued the Board, alleging that its compulsion of funding over and above 20% of the City’s revenue violates the Hancock Amendment.

Under the Police Board’s view, Kansas Citians should have no say in how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent—Taxation Without Representation—which violates the spirit and letter of Missouri law. 

Under the Hancock Amendment, Ms. Grant is entitled to and plans to seek full payment from the Board of Police Commissioners of her attorney’s fees. The court ruled that Ms. Grant can move forward on her Hancock Amendment claims as well. 

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