Kansas City wrestles with Missouri over police funding


FILE – A Kansas City police officer holds a non-lethal weapon as he watches protesters late Wednesday, June 3, 2020 in Kansas City, Mo., after a unit march to protest police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Leaders in largely Democratic Kansas City, Missouri, do not control the city’s police department, hire the police chief or determine how the department spends taxpayers’ money. A 1930s law gives that power to a five-member council largely appointed by the governor of Missouri, who since 2017 is a Republican. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)


Leaders in largely Democratic Kansas City, Missouri, do not control the city’s police department, hire the police chief, or determine how the department spends taxpayer dollars. A 1930s law gives that power to a five-member council largely appointed by the governor of Missouri, who since 2017 is a Republican.

A long-standing dispute over that arrangement erupted this summer. Both parties are gearing up for a statewide vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would give the Republican-dominated Legislature even more power to set police funding.

A key legislative backer says Kansas City police need support because some Democrats want to pull funding for the force — a charge city leaders vehemently deny.

A local civil rights leader sued on behalf of city 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 endures much of his violent crime.

Mayor Quinton Lucas, who is the only person on the board of police commissioners not appointed by the governor, said the proposal would be challenged in court.

The debate echoes recent confrontations between Republican state officials and big-city Democratic leaders elsewhere over issues including voting rights, mask mandates and recognition of the June 19 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 said targeted Democratic strongholds. And school boards in largely Democratic areas have challenged governors in Florida, Texas and Arizona who sought to ban mask mandates at the height of the pandemic.

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

After protests against racial injustice in 2020 sparked calls for greater 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 police department’s $239 million budget for fiscal year 2021-22 would be spent. . The money would have been used to focus on social service and crime prevention programs.

Critics, including the police union and the former police chief, said the proposal was a backdoor way to fund the department and would leave it with enough money to get through the year.

Shortly after the ordinances were passed, the state-appointed police commission sued the city to overturn them and won. The judge said state law gave the board exclusive authority over the police budget.

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

But it was feared the move would violate a state constitutional ban on unfunded state mandates for cities. Lawmakers have therefore proposed an amendment to address this issue in the November general election ballot.

Lucas tweeted that “the bill represents the gross exercise of power by state legislators over the people of Kansas City” and would be challenged in court. He and other officials noted that the city already routinely funds the police department above the 20% requirement.

State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican who represents counties outside Kansas City, said he sponsored the legislation to bolster law enforcement at a time of “radical attempts across the country by municipal councils to defund the police”.

Kansas City Democratic councilwoman Melissa Robinson said the current arrangement disenfranchises Kansas City taxpayers by allowing outsiders to decide how their taxes are spent.

She said supporters are strategizing to persuade out-of-town residents that the November ballot issue centers on local control, a principle frequently praised by Republicans.

“It’s not about clashing conversations about blue lives and black lives,” she said. “That’s the fundamental question of how government should work… We never said we wanted to cut funding, we just wanted to separate money and ask questions about better ways to tackle the crime.”

Luetkemeyer said all Missourians should care about the operation of the Kansas City Police Department because the city is one of the state’s major economic engines.

“If Kansas City experiences a dramatic increase in crime because police are demobilized, that will have a ripple effect on the entire economy of the state of Missouri,” he said.

According to police crime statistics, reports of the most serious crimes, such as homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, frauds and weapons violations, decreased by 6% between 2020 and 2021.

Homicides in the city fluctuated between 151 in 2017 and 157 in 2021, with a high of 179 in 2020. Statistics show that 78% of homicide victims in the city in 2021 were black men and women.

Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and a civil rights leader who sued over the funding issue, said the current arrangement is steeped in racism.

During the Civil War, Missouri was sharply divided between Union and Confederate supporters, with much of Union support concentrated 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 a law giving the state control of the St. Louis Police Department. Missouri voters in 2013 approved a constitutional amendment returning that department to local control.

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

But the state regained control in 1939 at the behest of another segregationist governor, Lloyd Crow Stark, in part because of corruption under highly influential political organizer Tom Pendergast. In 1943, a new law limited the amount a city could be required to allocate to a police board to 20% of its general revenue in a fiscal year.

Grant said she didn’t expect supporters of state control to recognize the racist elements of the situation.

“You can’t dodge this,” she said. “It’s the big elephant in the room…We’re the only city our size in the country that doesn’t have control of its police department. If state control is so important, why are we we the only ones to have it?


Ballentine reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.

Lynn A. Saleh