Kansas City moved for some local control of police spending. Missouri is pushing back

·10 min read

The struggle over who should control the Kansas City Police Department has gone back and forth for decades. It’s a long-simmering, now boiling, conflict over political accountability, local authority and state power.

Earlier this year, Mayor Quinton Lucas and the City Council made a novel bid to assert local control over the police budget by requiring city approval of funding above the minimum required by state law. The lightning-fast move provoked a furious response from conservative Northland politicians and a lawsuit that led a judge to rule the budget maneuvering illegal.

But the blowback is just beginning.

Missouri Republican lawmakers will push legislation next year that would undercut the city’s power to try similar tactics in the future. The measure follows passage earlier this year of a law that eliminated the longstanding rule that police officers live in the city limits.

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican, will introduce a bill this week that would require Kansas City to commit at least 25% of its revenues to the department each year, up from the current 20% minimum. Lucas had set the police budget at 20% and planned to require council approval of additional funding.

Luetkemeyer’s fellow Republicans, eager to portray themselves as allies to law enforcement in an election year, are likely to back the proposal. And Republican Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff, on Tuesday reaffirmed his support for the current system of control.

All of it acts as a blunt reminder that in Kansas City, the police answer to the state — not directly to the city they are sworn to serve and protect.

Lucas said Tuesday that the people of Kansas City are just as capable and talented as those in any other Missouri city with local control of its police department.

“I find this to be something that’s treating us like we’re a colony and as someone who believes in the empowerment of the people of Kansas City, who trust the choices that they make when they elect their officials,” Lucas said in an interview. “I think that this continues to be a drag on not just the city, but in some ways an abomination really. And I hope it changes. And I think this discussion right now is another example.”

A relic of a more corrupt era, the police are overseen by a board of commissioners, with four of five members appointed by the governor. The mayor takes the fifth seat.

Kansas City has one of the few police departments in the country governed this way, and the only remaining one in Missouri. After voters passed a statewide ballot measure in 2012, the St. Louis police department was returned to that municipal control.

“I don’t think the Kansas City Police Department is broken and I think they need to continue doing what they do best,” Parson told reporters in response to a question about department control.

Luetkemeyer said he had been in touch with the governor’s office and that he has “no reason to believe that the governor’s office will be anything other than fully supportive” of his proposal. Parson didn’t directly weigh in on the bill on Tuesday.

“When you get into funding issues, there’s ways to be able to do that. But again, that goes to that commission … and if there’s any changes to be made, it will be the legislative process,” Parson said.

‘An obvious reaction’

The proposal, long in the works, is being filed after an effort to push out Police Chief Rick Smith played out behind closed doors last week. Smith will retire earlier than he previously said privately.

The circumstances of the upcoming departure remain murky.

Smith and his allies have maintained he always planned to retire five years into his tenure, but The Star has reported that multiple sources have said commissioners had enough votes if needed to terminate Smith. Lucas and board president Bishop Mark C. Tolbert met with Smith at City Hall last week.

But Kansas City residents have little leverage over the board because, with the exception of the mayor, none of the members are directly accountable to voters.

The board’s newest member, Dawn Cramer, is awaiting Senate confirmation. Another, Don Wagner, continues to serve on the board though his term expired this spring. Parson was non-committal when asked Tuesday if he has any intention of replacing Wagner.

“I want them to do a good job and do what’s right for the people of Kansas City,” Parson said of the board.

Luetkemeyer argued the board system does offer local control because the commissioners must be city residents.

“And what the city council is wanting is they want local political control of the department and I am opposed to that. The city has a long history of political corruption when it comes to managing the police department dating back all the way to the Pendergast era,” Luetkemeyer said in an interview. “And the recent attempts by the city council to defund the KCPD in my mind only reinforces that the city should not have political control of this police department.”

Lucas said he wouldn’t comment on pre-filed legislation.

“In Kansas City, we believe in local solutions to local problems and will continue our hard work each day talking to Kansas City neighborhoods and families to build the best city in America,” the mayor wrote on Twitter.

The task of trying to defeat Luetkemeyer’s legislation will fall largely to Democrats. Their small numbers in the General Assembly only add to the challenge ahead.

One prominent Democrat, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo of Independence, appeared frustrated with Lucas. He also declined to say Tuesday whether he would oppose the bill.

“This is an obvious reaction that the mayor should have seen coming,” Rizzo said.

He said the end result of Lucas’s actions may be to single-handedly increase police funding. He added that the “whole thing was so poorly thought out that it makes you wonder if an increase in funding was the plan the whole time.”

Lucas and a supermajority of the Kansas City Council in May removed $42 million from the police budget and voted to require the police commissioners to negotiate with the city on how it would be spent.

The mayor had said he wanted some accountability in how police dollars were spent and a say in crime prevention programs after the city suffered a record year for homicides in 2020. But Republicans were quick to slam the move as an effort to “defund the police.” The ordinances the council approved came with a $3 million increase for the department, however.

In an interview, Lucas said the goal last year was to increase the police budget to give raises to officers and invest in community outreach programs such as crisis intervention teams.

He said the city will be able to show that he and the City Council want to ensure officers receive better funding and that the money they do receive is not diverted into lawsuits or administrative expenses. He said the city has for a few years already funded the police department with 25% of its budget. Yet, the department has several hundred fewer officers than it has budgeted for, he said.

“At least from what I’ve read so far about the bill, it doesn’t guarantee pay raises for officers,” Lucas said. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll have more officers and frankly, it just will look to freeze the budget where it already is.”

He said he visits as often as he can with Kansas City’s state senators and state representatives.

“I’ve had family members who are victims of homicide. I’ve lived in communities that are incredibly negatively impacted by violent crime,” Lucas said. “So this is not a political issue. It’s a human rights issue. It is an issue about whether people of Kansas City in all of our neighborhoods can have the quality of life they deserve.”

Rep. Richard Brown, a Kansas City Democrat, said he’s open to discussing local control, because “people have wanted that” in the city. “I’d like to at least get more input from the public as to what they want in Kansas City,” he said.

Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican, plans to file the same bill as Luetkemeyer in the House. He said Lucas’ seat on the police board is adequate representation of Kansas City voters and that he never supported locally elected control of KCPD — but especially not “in light of what the mayor did back in May.”

“Conversations to move the police board under local control? Those conversations have had a good amount of cold water thrown on them,” Richey said.

Council reacts

How the City Council will respond if the legislation becomes law isn’t immediately clear.

The Special Committee for Legal Review on Tuesday approved a list of legislative priorities, including local control, for the city. The full City Council will hear the resolution on Thursday.

Lucas has previously said the recent lawsuit showed the importance of how the city funds public safety.

“This is a message from the judge, which was, we need to pay a lot more attention to the budget that’s passed, both the one recommended by the Board of Police Commissioners and ultimately debated by the City Council, because we cannot simply rubber stamp these budgets anymore,” he said. “As a board of police commissioners, we have a true role here.”

Despite the ruling going against the city, Lucas said in a statement last month that there was a path forward “for the City to require the Kansas City Police Department to engage in discussions related to crime prevention throughout future budget cycles, should the Department seek to receive funds in excess of 20 percent of the City’s General Fund Revenue.”

Councilman Dan Fowler, District 2, said Tuesday he needed to see next year’s budget before knowing how much the floor should be raised.

Fowler, and the other three Northland council members, all voted against the May reallocation.

He said he was concerned about an impact to other necessary functions such as street repair or solid waste pickup.

“I would hate to see something come up that jeopardizes the others,” Fowler said.

Fowler said he anticipated a reaction in Jefferson City to the City Council’s reallocation of police funding, but didn’t know what it would be.

“On the one hand, I hate to have the state tell us how to spend our money,” Fowler said. “And on the other hand, I think law enforcement function one way or another probably needs to be a little better funded.”

Councilwoman Teresa Loar, District 2 at-large, said in a statement that she was pleased the legislature was addressing KCPD’s budget. If lawmakers raise the budget threshold, then police will be able to concentrate on their jobs instead of wondering if they will have a job the next day, she said.

“I don’t think the PD can go through another year like this one,” Loar said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McManus said the city in the past has funded the police department more than the 20% required. He said it’s been a challenge to ensure the funds are used as they were intended. McManus said the money needs to be used in a way that makes the largest impact when it comes to combating violence and solving crime.

He served in the Missouri legislature for five years.

“They like to talk about local control when they’re talking about the federal government, but when it comes to cities governing themselves, that’s when it seems a problem,” said McManus, who represents District 6. “I’m a believer that the people closest to the residents often are best equipped to solve that issue and address it.”

Councilman Lee Barnes, District 5 at-large, said the bill doesn’t change much when it comes to the city’s priorities for the next year.

“We need local control,” Barnes said.

The Star’s Glenn Rice contributed reporting

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