Kansas City police board files lawsuit against city leaders over budget measure

The lawsuit demands the return of $42.3 million the city recently allocated to a new Community Services and Prevention Fund


By Glenn E. Rice and Steve Vockrodt
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners file a lawsuit Friday against Mayor Quinton Lucas and the City Council, challenging a recently passed measure that gives the city authority over a portion of the police department's budget.

The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court against the city, members of the Kansas City Council, city manager Brian Platt and city finance director Tammy Queen. It says state law gives the police commission exclusive management of the Kansas City Police Department and that Kansas City has to spend at least 20% of its general revenue on policing.

"We all have a shared goal of keeping our community safe," said Mayor Quinton Lucas. "Kansas City will fight vigorously this effort to keep our hands tied and solve the greatest shames of this city, one we have fought for decades." (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images/TNS)

The police board voted 4-1 Friday to file the lawsuit. Lucas, one of the five police commissioners, voted against the decision.

An initial hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

"While expected, today's lawsuit reflects failure," Lucas said during a news conference after the board's vote. "Failure of the status quo, where politics get more attention and energy from our state than the toll of violence in our neighborhoods and tragedies on our streets each and every day."

Several police board members have opposed the City Council measure passed last Thursday, on a 9-4 vote, to cut this year's police budget back to 20% of the city's general fund, the minimum required by Missouri law.

The savings of $42.3 million would be reallocated to a newly devised "Community Services and Prevention Fund."

The measure requires that Kansas City Manager Brian Platt and the police commissioners negotiate how to spend those funds. The police board would enter into a contractual agreement with the city to provide specific services to reduce crime, provide intervention and other services.

Council members who supported the measure said the city gives millions to the police department but has no say in how those tax dollars are spent. Meanwhile, the city saw a record number of homicides in 2020.

"Don't believe those who seek to divide us, don't believe those who seek to scare us," Lucas said. "We all have a shared goal of keeping our community safe. Kansas City will fight vigorously this effort to keep our hands tied and solve the greatest shames of this city, one we have fought for decades."

In a statement on behalf of the police commissioners, Bishop Mark Tolbert, board president, said "an unexpected $42 million change to our budget risks a disruption in services to our citizens."

"While I understand the frustration of the Mayor, the City Council and some citizens of Kansas City, Missouri, I also understand that we must abide by the laws enacted by our Missouri Legislature," Tolbert said.

Tolbert asked Lucas to withdraw the two ordinances. Otherwise, he said, the police board would be forced to continue legal action to fulfill duties as outlined by the Missouri Legislature. The board is ready to negotiate next year's budget, he said.

"And we hope to continue dialogue with the Mayor, the City Council and other stakeholders. Our goal is to work together to strengthen and improve the services we provide to the diverse population of Kansas City, Missouri."

Northland critics

Critics of the plan, particularly four members of the Kansas City Council who represent Northland districts — Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Dan Fowler and Kevin O'Neill — have sought to cast the measure as "defunding the police," even though the ordinances call for Platt to negotiate on the allocation of the $42.3 million with KCPD and no other city department.

Those council members held a town hall meeting Thursday night that resulted in a packed auditorium at Northland Neighborhoods Inc. The vast majority of people who spoke were stridently critical of Lucas' proposal.

Brad Lemon, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, a police union that represents rank-and-file officers and civilians of KCPD, said Thursday night that he expected the police commission to file the lawsuit.

"The elections are coming up and there are nine people you better not support," Lemon said in reference to the eight council members south of the Missouri River who favored Lucas' proposal, and Lucas himself.

Lawsuit filed

The lawsuit says that on May 20, Police Chief Rick Smith received a voicemail from Lucas informing him of the two ordinances, which passed later that same day with the supermajority of nine votes on the Kansas City Council required to pass measures on the same day they are introduced.

In the court filings, the plaintiffs allege that the ordinances provide no means to return money to the police department if commissioners do not reach an agreement with the city manager.

"Indeed, in several public statements Mayor Lucas confirmed the ordinances are meant not to save money but to shift control of the police department's budget from the Board to the Mayor and City Council," the lawsuit said.

"When one journalist remarked, for example, that the plan 'shifts CONTROL over money from the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners to the city,' Mayor Lucas responded 'Correct.'"

The lawsuit demands the return of the $42.3 million.

Pat McInerney, a former police commissioner, is lead lawyer representing the four members of the police commissioners — Nathan Garrett, Cathy Dean, Mark Tolbert and Don Wagner — who voted to approve the lawsuit.

McInerney is a private attorney with the Spencer Fane law firm. Spencer Fane partner Mike Seitz and associate Blake Smith are also representing police commissioners.

Lucas has said Kansas City may have a legal argument under the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which says people have to be treated the same under the law.

The city also has numerous contractual agreements with other entities, including one with the police department to enforce parking violation in downtown Kansas City.

Lucas' ordinances earmarked an additional $3 million in police funding for use in hiring a new class of recruits from the police academy. Smith, the police chief, said earlier this month that he has not been able to hire new recruits since February 2020.

City supporters

Lora McDonald, executive director of social justice advocacy group MORE2, said the lawsuit shows that the police commissioners are at odds with the interests of Kansas City.

"The audacity of spending taxpayers money for a legal battle against the same taxpayers is something only wealthy, elite people would think is appropriate," McDonald said.

Earlier this week, a group of civil rights organizations voiced their support of Lucas and those city council members who voted in favor of the budget measures.

"As civil and human rights organizations, we support the city in addressing its responsibility to ensure the public safety of not just some of its residents, but all of its residents, especially those in our communities whom the system is failing to protect," the Rev. Vernon P. Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City said on Friday.

"Our perspective is that the City is trying to do that which is its charge and responsibility. No one is safe unless everybody is safe," Howard said.

Council member Melissa Robinson said she and others stand firm inn their decision to reallocate police funding and would like to have public meetings with police commissioners to discuss, "what we should be collectively doing to address crime and adequately resource crime prevention strategies."

"Taxpayers deserve better. We have seen record numbers of homicide, most of which is in the district I represent," said Robinson, who represents the city's Third District. "Their complaint is they do not want to separate funds and clearly outline preventive and community service measures.

"Any action that dissolves accountability is an another assault on the families who have lost loved ones due to homicide. Shame on us for not being laser focused on preserving human life," she said.

Lisa Pelofsky, who served on the police board from 2010 to 2014, called the lawsuit, "a shame."

"It's very discouraging as a former commissioner to watch this process fall apart," Pelofsky told The Star.

"Even when we disagreed in the past, we have been able to work through the process to make changes and to be inclusive," she said.

"It is a strange experience to watch the disintegration of the relationships between the city administration and the police board and the police department and the (Jackson County) prosecutor's office. It's very discouraging."
     
(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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