By John Sharp
The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners has filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court to overturn the City Council’s actions on May 20 that stripped approximately $42.3 million from the Police Department’s approved budget for this fiscal year but authorized the city manager to negotiate with the Board for the possible restoration of all or part of the funding and the possible addition of $3 million for a new recruit class.
A hearing on the suit is currently scheduled for June 1, but an attorney for the Board said the city is seeking to delay the hearing until June 3 or 4.
An ordinance Introduced on May 20 by Mayor Quinton Lucas and eight City Council members reducing the Police Department’s budget was passed 9-4 by the Council the same day without being assigned to a committee for a hearing to allow public input as is customary. Introducing and passing an ordinance the same day is generally only done for emergencies. The ordinance contained an accelerated effective date so it became effective five days after being approved by the mayor.
The suit claims nobody notified any members of the Board or Department that the ordinance and a companion ordinance were being introduced until earlier that day when Lucas left a voicemail for Chief Rick Smith.
The ordinance specified what police services would be cut. Over half of the cuts totaling nearly $22 million would come from slashing funding for the Central, East and Metro Patrol Divisions in the heart of the city that have much higher levels of violent and property crimes than the North, Shoal Creek and South Patrol Divisions.
To date this year, 47 of the city’s 61 homicides (77%) have occurred in these three divisions.
The ordinance deletes approximately $9.7 million from Central Patrol, $8.3 million from Metro Patrol and $4 million from East Patrol. The suit states the ordinance completely eliminates funding for personnel for the Central and Metro Patrol Divisions and eliminates almost half the funding for personnel for East Patrol.
Other major reductions include approximately $8.8 million for risk management, $3.6 million for purchasing, $1.9 million for building operations, $1.7 million for fleet operations and $1.3 million for the communications support unit.
Even with these major cuts, the ordinance said the city will still be appropriating 20 percent of its general revenue for this fiscal year to the Department as required by state law.
The $42.3 million that was cut was transferred by the ordinance to a new community services and prevention fund under the control of the city manager.
A companion ordinance that also was introduced and passed on May 20 authorizes the city manager to negotiate an agreement with the Board “not to exceed” the $42.3 million that was cut to provide as yet unspecified “community engagement, outreach, prevention, intervention and other public services” plus $3 million “as necessary” to fund a new recruit class for a possible total of $45.3 million.
Since the ordinances passed, Lucas has issued two written statements claiming this increases funding to the Police Department, but that will only happen if the manager and the Board negotiate an agreement to restore the entire $42.3 million and to add $3 million “as necessary” for a new recruit class.
There is no provision in the ordinance for any of these funds to be appropriated to the Department without such an agreement governing their use, and the lawsuit claims the funds will not be made available “if the Board declines to spend the money as the city dictates”.
Fear of staffing cuts that would be necessary if the funding is not restored may cause officers to consider applying for jobs with other law enforcement agencies, according to Brad Lemon, president of Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99.
“You’ve got to start looking for another job,” Lemon said.
The lawsuit says the money was not stripped from the Department budget because of any financial shortfall, and that in several public statements Lucas confirmed the ordinances were “not meant to save money but to shift control of the police department’s budget from the Board to the Mayor and City Council”.
The suit, authorized by the four members of the Board appointed by the governor and opposed by Lucas who is the fifth member, names Lucas, all City Council members, the city manager and finance director in their official capacities and the city as defendants. The lead attorney handling the suit is Patrick McInerney, a former state and federal prosecutor who also is a former president of the Board.
It claims it was filed in response to the city’s “efforts to hinder and obstruct the Board’s management and control of the police department’s budget in violation of state law”.
The suit requests the court to order the city to:
- Return the $42.3 million originally appropriated to the Department;
- Ban the city from cutting police funding after the Board adopts the Department’s budget in reliance on the city’s appropriation of funding; and
- Prohibit the city from dictating funding priorities for the Department for amounts it gives the Department exceeding the 20 percent required by state law.
On the day the suit was filed, Bishop Mark Tolbert, Board president, said, “An unexpected $42 million change to our budget risks a disruption in services to our citizens.”
”I ask the Mayor and the City Council withdraw the two ordinances at issue,” Tolbert said, noting otherwise the Board will be forced to continue its suit.
“The Board of Police Commissioners stands ready to negotiate next year’s budget, and we hope to continue dialogue with the Mayor, the City Council and other stakeholders,” he said.
In a statement issued in response to the suit, Lucas said, “Kansas City will fight vigorously this effort to keep our hands tied in solving one of our greatest challenges for decades.”
“Kansas City will fight to shine light on best practices and community collaboration with our police officers, rather than stay in the dark about where taxpayer money goes, what we’re doing, and how the hell we can once and for all get out of this situation,” he said.
On a more conciliatory note, Lucas said, “Over the past week, the City Manager has met in person with the police chief and conversations are ongoing about how the department working with the City can make us safer.”
In other major developments since the Council approved the funding cuts, the four northland City Council members who voted against the ordinances and who all said they knew nothing about the ordinances being introduced until a few hours beforehand hosted a standing room only town hall meeting May 27 attended by well over 300 people with scores turned away due to crowding.
“This is the public hearing the mayor didn’t let us have,” said emcee Ed Ford, a former city councilman.
All four Council members complained about the lack of transparency in the process and being left out of discussions regarding the ordinances.
“We did not have a voice,” Councilman Dan Fowler told the audience, “but what I really don’t like is you didn’t have a voice.”
The town hall also was attended by three northland state representatives who all criticized how the ordinances were approved and said they have urged the governor to call a special session of the General Assembly to address police funding which could consider legislation to increase the percentage of the city’s general revenue that must be appropriated to the Police Department.
The overwhelming majority of the scores of persons who had time to speak during the nearly two and a half hour meeting voiced their disappointment about not being allowed to have any input before the ordinances were passed and their concerns about the negative impact on public safety if the funding is not restored.
Several witnesses expressed concerns about slower police response times to 911 calls if police staffing continues to be reduced due to inadequate funding. A longtime former ambulance administrator pointed out this will also delay the responses of emergency medical personnel to help victims of violent crime since ambulance crews and other first responders have to wait nearby for their own safety until police secure crime scenes.
Even with current staffing levels, police officials have noted that all available officers in various patrol divisions are often on calls and are not available to respond when additional 911 calls come in.
Cars are routinely dispatched to answer calls in other patrol divisions, Captain Martin Cobbinah, city liaison for the Department, told a recent City Council committee hearing.
Major Darren Ivey, commander of the South Patrol Division, said in a recent interview that there are times every day when all on duty officers in his divisions are already on calls and not available to respond when new calls for service come in.
While he said his minimum staffing is supposed to be six officers and one sergeant at its lowest level, he told a May 19 meeting of the Southern Communities Coalition his staffing is sometimes down to only four officers.
“This is a true crisis for us,” Ivey said.
Not all reactions to the Council’s actions have been negative.
Representatives of seven major civil rights, community and faith-based organizations gathered on the steps of city hall May 25 to praise the actions calling them bold steps to give city elected officials more influence in the Police Department’s priorities and strategies for reducing and solving crimes and to hold the Department more accountable for how it spends taxpayers’ dollars.
The groups represented at the gathering included the Kansas City Missouri Chapter of the NAACP, Metro Organization for Racial & Economic Equity, National Black United Front-KC, Presbyterian Urban & Immigrant Ministry Network, Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, Urban League of Greater Kansas City and Urban Summit.
KCMO is the only city in the nation that does not control its own police department which was placed under state control in 1939 in an attempt to clean up the rampant corruption of the Pendergast political machine.
There is substantial local support for restoring city control of the Department which would take approval of the Missouri General Assembly that most political observers think is currently highly unlikely or a statewide petition drive and successful statewide public vote.
If either occurs, the Department could be placed under the control of the city manager along with most other city departments or the present Board of Police Commissioners could be replaced by a board appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council as is currently done with the City Parks & Recreation Department.
John Sharp is a former city councilman for the 6th District and a state legislator.