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Critics of a measure taken by the Kansas City City Council to take some control of the police department back from the state say the reallocation of funds will take police officers off the street and lead to more crime.
The Kansas City Council passed two groundbreaking ordinances Thursday that give city leaders more influence over how the state-controlled Kansas City Police Department spends taxpayer funds. The pair of 9-4 votes, at the end of a dramatic day at City Hall, represent perhaps the most significant exercise of local control over the KCPD since it was returned to state governance in 1939. Through a parliamentary procedure rarely used to allow significant legislation to pass on the same day they’re introduced, the council approved two measures that give the city manager authority to negotiate with the Board of Kansas City Police Commissioners how it will spend about $42.3 million of the police department’s $239 million budget. The KCPD is governed by that board, appointed by the Missouri governor. The Kansas City Council has little say over the operations of the department, but does approve its budget. Even then, the council has historically had little influence over spending decisions. The whirlwind began at a noon press conference on the steps of City Hall, where Mayor Quinton Lucas announced his plan to give the city more oversight on police spending. He said the two ordinances would be referred to a council committee for debate — the usual path for nearly all ordinances that the council considers. But four hours later, it became apparent that Lucas had secured the nine votes needed to form a supermajority needed to immediately pass the proposal into law. The meeting’s drama was on par with the time former City Manager Wayne Cauthen was fired, or when the vote was held for the Kansas City Fire Department to take control of the Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust, or when the council nearly discarded its agreement with Edgemoor to build the new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. The council members who opposed it were all from the Northland: Teresa Loar, Heather Hall, Dan Fowler and Kevin O’Neill. “Councilwoman Loar said this is the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen and I will not support it, Councilwoman Hall said this has to go to committee and I still will not support it, Councilman Fowler said I will not support it,” Lucas said after the council meeting ended. “So the question for us in some ways is what further discussion were they looking to have? Other than to, in a way, try to I think undermine something where clearly a consensus of council members were clearly in support of making sure that there’s just more accountability.” Fowler denounced the lack of transparency. “This is not daylight,” Fowler said during a floor debate. “This is government in the dark.” In a statement earlier Thursday, KCPD Chief Rick Smith said he didn’t know Thursday’s action was coming. “I am disheartened Mayor Lucas and the other sponsoring council members did not reach out to the Police Department prior to today’s press conference to notify us of such a policy shift,” Smith said. The Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police called the legislation “reckless.” But others lauded the council’s move. Gwen Grant, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Kansas City, called Thursday’s legislation a “refreshing change of course.” “The Urban Council, and our Black Rainbow and Operation Liberation allies commend Mayor Lucas and the Council for taking this bold step to ensure that public safety tax dollars are used to directly address the root causes of violent crime and to make our community safer,” Grant said in a statement. “It is time that the KCPD be held to account for their inefficient and ineffective expenditures, which have failed to substantively address the proliferation of violent crime in our community.” Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, said she served in the Missouri General Assembly 10 years ago during a time when there were discussions about returning the St. Louis Police Department to local control, an idea that had difficulty gaining traction in Kansas City. (St. Louis eventually got the local control.) “A lot has changed in the last 10 years. It just seems like the community can’t have a voice with the structure as it exists now,” Peters Baker said. “They’re sure trying to have a voice today. It is probably the closest we’ve been to the exercising of local control as it pertains to resources.” What the ordinances do Lucas’ ordinances work in two steps. The first reduces the KCPD budget in the current fiscal year that started this month by $42.3 million. The $42.3 million isn’t a random figure: It’s the most Kansas City can reduce the police budget while still following Missouri law that requires the city to spend 20% of its general fund revenue on policing. But according to Lucas, that budget reduction doesn’t actually mean the police have less money to spend. The second ordinance sends City Manager Brian Platt into negotiations with the Board of Police Commissioners to negotiate a contract that determines how the police will spend that $42.3 million. The ordinances provides an additional $3 million for the KCPD to hire new recruits from the police academy, which Smith said in a blog post last week was something he’s been unable to do since February 2020. With a $239 million budget, which includes $40 million in pension costs, the KCPD gets more than any city department from the general fund. Lucas said he wants to see the city have some leverage in how some of that money is spent. The KCPD can still spend most of its budget however it sees fit. Lucas said he hopes that the police will agree to devote more money on mental health, conflict resolution and crime prevention strategies. “I think it finally gives the people of Kansas City some accountability of policing activities in their city,” Lucas said in an interview. “I hope it compels the police department to engage more actively in a lot of our newer approaches to violence prevention. … I hope it encourages the board of police commissioners to build a more collaborative relationship with the City Council of Kansas City and frankly the people of Kansas City.” Members of the Board of Police Commissioners did not respond to requests for comment. The Northland council members during a press conference Thursday said Lucas’ fast-tracked legislation was not fully thought out and would harm the KCPD. They described it as a cut in police funding, one that would result in fewer police officers patrolling the streets of Kansas City during a time when violent crime is reaching historic levels. “This is absolutely the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen ever since I’ve been here at City Hall,” said Loar, who at the end of her current council term will have served a total of four terms as a council member. But council members who supported Lucas’ legislation said they expected it would mark the beginning of new, more collaborative talks between the city and the police. “This gives us time, this gives our city manager time to work with the police board to come up with a contract on this $47 million and how it will be spent and what sort of reporting we expect back so we know it has been spent as we discussed,” said council member Katheryn Shields. How will Jefferson City respond? The Northland delegation warned that the Missouri General Assembly may intervene if they see Lucas’ measure as something that interferes with police. Indeed, the Republican-dominated legislature passed a raft of pro-police legislation this year, much of it in response to increasing criticism of law enforcement in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. They passed one bill that lifts KCPD’s requirement that officers live within city limits, over the objections of Lucas and other local officials. They also passed another blocking cities from cutting their police department budgets by more than 12% over five years, relative to other city departments — a reaction to the “defund the police” movement to redirect funds from policing toward alternative social services that do not use force. Under the bill, residents in those cities could ask a judge to stop the budget cut. Neither bill has yet been signed by Gov. Mike Parson. The sponsor of the second measure, state Sen. Bill Eigel, said he expects the governor to approve it. “We are certainly trying to discourage any situation where local cities and communities are trying to move away from funding their police departments at their current levels or reducing future funding,” he said. Eigel, a Weldon Springs Republican, said he did not know the specifics of Lucas’ proposal or whether it would fall under the situations governed by his bill. He said he wanted local authorities to have flexibility in funding “different areas of law enforcement,” but the bill discourages shifting funding “away from the officers that are risking their lives every day.” “I’m concerned whenever I hear any city or town is looking at different ways to potentially cut funding” from police, he said. Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican, said there was a shortage of police officers patrolling streets in Kansas City. “I think it’s the worst thing the city could do at a time when we have record high crime,” he said. But Lucas said his approach was necessary given the continual rise of homicides in Kansas City. Lucas said in an interview early Thursday that his thinking coalesced around his strategy after years of poor results in combating violent crime in Kansas City, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the country. “I’ve been alive for 36 years, and there have been about 4,500 people murdered in Kansas City,” Lucas said. “That is more than the Americans who died in the Iraq War, almost double the Americans who died in the Afghanistan War. These are traumatic numbers.” The Star’s Jeanne Kuang contributed to this report.
Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.
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