Pro-police advocates raise the alarm as Kansas City mayor seeks more control over the police budget

After an illegal attempt to defund police in 2021, the mayor of Kansas City is once again proposing to take $37 million out of next year’s police budget and giving control of it to the city.

The $37 million, out of the Kansas City Police Department’s $269 million budget for 2022-2023, would be in a new “Community Policing and Prevention Fund” controlled by the city manager. Police presumably would have to negotiate with the city manager for the funds.

And although much of the money is earmarked for traditional police functions, there may be no guarantee that all of the $37 million will go to those earmarks, or even to policing, as line-item budgets are often subject to administrative discretion.

“Well, of course they are,” says city Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who is skeptical of the ordinance. Is there any guarantee the police department will get all of that $37 million? “No. None,” she says.

“That was one of the issues last year,” says Board of Kansas City Police Commissioners lawyer Patrick McInerney.

Police were given an opportunity to suggest items they want included in the $37 million. And most of the allocations of funds under Mayor Quinton Lucas’ ordinance introduced Thursday do appear police-friendly, including money for hiring officers, “dedicated patrol” and salary increases. But an unspecified amount would be reserved for an ill-defined “community outreach staff,” $30,000 would go to inmate/detainee food and beverage, and $20 million would go to victim/witness services. And, again, all $37 million would be under the city manager’s control.

That begs the question: If the city is just going to give police what they want, why does the city need to retain control of it?

“Bingo,” Loar says.

The city is required by state law to allocate at least 20% of its general revenues to the police department. The city has voluntarily spent more than that historically, and the $37 million the mayor wants control of is among those discretionary expenditures.

An attempt last year by Lucas and a council majority to claw back control of $42 million of the police budget – after it was finalized – was ruled illegal by a Jackson County judge. But if passed by the council, the mayor’s Thursday proposal would be a legal appropriation of policing funds, according to McInerney.

Still, pro-police Councilwoman Heather Hall says the ordinance’s legality isn’t the question. It’s the wisdom of it.

“Yes, he can do that. But is it in the best interest of the people? That’s my question,” Hall says, quickly answering it: “I’m certain the majority of the council will support it. I won’t support it.

“It appears to be another form of local control of the police department by the mayor.”

The KCPD, as a legacy of the city’s Pendergast machine’s political corruption in the 1930s, is actually governed by a board of commissioners composed of four gubernatorial appointees from KC and the mayor. Lucas and a council majority have been seeking ways to wrest as much control back to the city as they can.

But the council majority’s actions last year, and the mayor’s proposal this week, indicate that local political control of the police department would still be a mistake, Loar says. She, Hall and council members Dan Fowler and Kevin O’Neill were the only votes against the failed defunding last year.

“If they’re going to steal the budget, and do it however they want to do it, it is [an argument] against local control,” Loar says. “Why would the citizens want a council that doesn’t understand policing making those decisions? [Council members] distrust their police department so much that they won’t allow police – who are professionals – to make those decisions.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who went to court to oppose Kansas City’s illegal defunding of police last year, said he’ll be watching this year’s effort closely.

“When Quinton Lucas attempted to defund the police in 2021, we filed an amicus brief in support of the men and women of law enforcement, and the court sided with our arguments,” Schmitt said in a statement to The Heartlander. 

“Now, Quinton Lucas is attempting to defund the police yet again, and my office will oppose any such effort. I will always fight efforts to defund the police, and will always have the backs of the men and women who answer the call to protect the communities they love.”

In truth, opposition to Lucas’ effort may have to be more political than legal. To that end, Hall says she’s aware of groups who are likely to support Lucas’ ordinance, but not of any organized opposition to it. She says that will be left to citizens.

“I think it’ll just be people who support law enforcement, people who care about law and order,” Hall said.

President Biden says he’s now one of those people, declaring an end to Defund the Police in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“I think he was pretty clear,” Hall says. “The federal-level administration now knows that they made a mistake by defunding police. It doesn’t help the people of this country or this city.”

Shannon Bjornlie of the grassroots group Taking KC Back, which mounted an unsuccessful effort last year to recall the mayor and council members who voted to defund police, said petition canvassers found a lot of citizens weren’t aware of the issue, or local issues in general.

“They don’t really realize how much it affects them,” Bjornlie said.

And now the mayor has renewed efforts to make a hefty portion of the police budget subject to city administration control.

“Why are we doing this again?” asks Loar. “This is the same thing from last year, outside of a few line items that the police department has given them. We’re still defunding the police department.”

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