Kansas City is fighting with Missouri over police funding

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Leaders in largely Democratic Kansas City, Missouri, don’t control the city’s police department, hire the police chief or direct how the department spends its tax dollars. A 1930s law gives that authority to a five-member board, mostly appointed by the Missouri governor, who has been a Republican since 2017.

A long-standing dispute over this arrangement erupts this summer. The two sides are preparing for a statewide vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would give the Republican-majority legislature even more powers in determining police funding.

A key supporter of the legislation says the Kansas City Police Department needs the assistance because some Democrats want to disappoint the force — a charge city leaders vehemently deny.

A local civil rights activist sued on behalf of the city’s taxpayers, arguing that allowing the state to control the city’s police force amounts to “taxation without representation” and discriminates against Kansas City’s large black population, who witness much of its violent crime.

Mayor Quinton Lucas, the only person on the board of police commissioners not appointed by the governor, has indicated the proposal will be challenged in court.

The debate echoes recent confrontations between Republican state officials and Democratic leaders of larger cities elsewhere over issues such as voting rights, mask mandates and recognition of the June 16 holiday. And it comes as the nation continues to grapple with racial injustice in policing.

Last year, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia signed restrictive election laws that opponents claimed were targeting Democratic strongholds. And school boards in largely Democratic areas defied governors in Florida, Texas and Arizona who tried to ban mask mandates during the height of the pandemic.

Kansas City is the only city in Missouri without local police control with a population of around 508,000, of whom around 28% are black. It is believed to be the largest city in the US in this situation, the mayor’s office said.

After protests over racial injustice in 2020 sparked calls for more police accountability, Lucas and some city council members passed two ordinances that would have given city officials some control over how $42.5 million of the $239 million Police Department budgets would be spent for the 2021-2022 financial year. The money would have been used to highlight social services and crime prevention programs.

Critics, including the police union and the former police chief, said the proposal was a roundabout way to disappoint the department and would not give it enough money to get through the year.

Shortly after the ordinances were passed, the state-appointed police department sued the city to have them reversed, and won. The judge said state law gives the board exclusive authority over the police budget.

The fight prompted lawmakers to pass legislation requiring the city to increase police funding from 20% of its general revenue budget to 25%. Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed the law into law on June 27.

But there were concerns the move would violate a state constitutional ban on unfunded state mandates for cities. So lawmakers made an amendment to address this on the ballot for November’s general election.

Lucas tweeted that “the law represents the brute exercise of power by state legislatures over the people of Kansas City” and would be challenged in court. He and other officials have noted that the city already routinely funds the police department in excess of the 20 percent requirement.

State Senator Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican representing counties in suburban Kansas City, said he sponsored the legislation to stand by law enforcement at a time of “radical attempts by city councils across the country to defund the police force.” stand.

Melissa Robinson, a Kansas City Council member, said the current rule disenfranchises Kansas City taxpayers by allowing outsiders to choose how their tax dollars are spent.

She said supporters were considering how to convince residents outside of the city that the issue of November’s election focuses on local control, a principle frequently praised by Republicans.

“This isn’t about divisive conversations about blue and black lives,” she said. “It’s the fundamental question of how government should function … We never said we wanted to cut funding, we just wanted to set aside some money and ask about better ways to fight crime.”

Luetkemeyer said all Missourians should care about how the Kansas City Police Department operates because the city is one of the state’s most important economic engines.

“If Kansas City sees a dramatic increase in crime because the police are deprived of resources, it will have an impact on the entire Missouri state economy,” he said.

According to Police Department crime statistics, reports of the most serious crimes, such as homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, fraud and gun violations, fell by 6% from 2020 to 2021.

The number of homicides in the city varied from 151 in 2017 to 157 in 2021, peaking at 179 in 2020. Statistics show that 78% of the city’s homicide victims in 2021 were black men and women.

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and a civil rights activist who has filed a lawsuit over the funding issue, said the current rule is steeped in racism.

During the Civil War, Missouri was sharply divided between Union and Confederate supporters, with much Union support centered in St. Louis and Kansas City, which had larger black populations than elsewhere in the state.

In 1861, Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, who supported the Confederacy, persuaded the legislature to pass legislation giving the state control of the St. Louis police department. Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2013 that brought this department back under local control.

The state adopted the new Kansas City Police Department in 1874. That changed in 1932, when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that control of the agency by the appointed board was unconstitutional.

But the state retook control in 1939 at the urging of another segregationist governor, Lloyd Crow Stark, partly because of corruption under highly influential political organizer Tom Pendergast. In 1943, a new law limited the amount a city had to give to a police department to 20% of its general income each fiscal year.

Grant said she doesn’t expect advocates of state control to acknowledge the racist elements of the situation.

“You can’t avoid this,” she said. “That’s the big elephant in the room… We are the only city of our size in the country that has no control over its police department. If government control is so great, why are we the only ones with it?”

Ballentine reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.

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