Kansas City plan to reallocate police funds violated state law, judge rules

The police board filed a lawsuit after the mayor sought to reduce its budget by 18%

By Glenn E. Rice
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Jackson County judge ruled on Tuesday that the Kansas City City Council overstepped and violated state law with its plan to reallocate millions in funding for the city police department.

The police board filed a lawsuit in May in Jackson County Circuit Court after the city council approved a measure cutting the police budget back to 20% of the city’s general fund, the minimum required by state law.

The lawsuit was in response to the City Council’s approval of two ordinances orchestrated by Mayor Quinton Lucas that sought to reduce the Kansas City Police Department’s budget by $42.3 million. It placed that money, about 18% of KCPD’s $239 million budget, in a separate fund and its use would be the matter for City Manager Brian Platt and police commissioners to negotiate.

Under the measure the city would reallocate the money to a newly formed “Community Services and Prevention Fund.”

Lucas, in a statement after the ruling, said the city would weigh its options going forward, including the possibility of an appeal.

“The decision announced by the Court today has provided a pathway forward for the City to require the Kansas City Police Department to engage in discussions related to crime prevention throughout future budget cycles, should the Department seek to receive funds in excess of 20 percent of the City’s General Fund Revenue,” Lucas said in the statement.

“I will continue working with the City and Department leadership to ensure every taxpayer funded entity in our City shares a role in working to prevent violent crime and create better outcomes for all people in all of our neighborhoods.”

In July, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a brief opposing the council’s measure, which would have effectively given the city more control over the police department’s budget.

Schmitt said in a statement after the ruling on Tuesday: “This is a huge win for the people of Kansas City and law enforcement officers who work every single day to keep their communities safe. I will always stand up for Missouri’s law enforcement and fight back against craven attempts to defund the police.”

In his ruling, Judge Patrick Campbell wrote that the judgment is not a determination of the values of “defunding the police.”

“This judgment does not resolve whether citizens of Kansas City should exert direct political control over their law enforcement agency,” he wrote. “It is not a referendum on the Chief of Police, the Mayor, or any other appointed or elected official.

“These are subjects of vigorous social debate and should be finally resolved by a healthy democracy. However, they are not legal issues pending before this Court.”

During a previous hearing in the case, Kristine Reiter, KCPD’s budget manager, said if the ordinances went into effect as approved by the city council and KCPD continued to spend funds, the board would run out of money by December.

The police department, she said, would be forced to lay off 1,000 sworn officers and staff to ensure there was enough money until the end of the year. It would force reductions in patrol divisions located in the city’s urban core, she said.

Lucas disputed the department’s claims, saying they are “totally incorrect.” He said the city recently sought to increase police funding to pay for an academy class and raises for officers.

Tara Kelly, an attorney for the city, said the city council acted within the bounds of its constitutional and statutory authority in withdrawing a portion of the money it allocates annually to the police department.

Just recently, the police board purchased body cameras for officers and paid for a new academy class.

Police board lawyer Patrick McInerney has previously said that the city’s police spending could be changed during budget discussions in March, but not later. “When that board approves that budget, the door slams and nobody else can reach in, grab money, adjust money, or do whatever they want,” he said during the court hearing.

Any spending above the state-required 20% threshold is fully “discretionary” for the city council, lawyers said during the hearing.

Council members who supported the budget measure said the city has no say in how tax dollars are spent.

Critics of the plan, including four members of the Kansas City City Council who represent Northland districts, have tried to portray the measure as “defunding the police” despite the ordinances calling for Platt to negotiate with KCPD and no other city department.

Local civil rights leaders tried to intervene in the lawsuit.

Urban League of Greater Kansas City president Gwen Grant alleged in a court filing that the current policing structure is a “Taxation Without Representation” scheme that violates a citizens’ initiative that limits state revenues and local taxes.

The ordinances earmarked an additional $3 million in police funding for use in hiring a new class of recruits from the police academy, something that Police Chief Rick Smith had said he has not been able to do since February 2020.

The police commissioners contended that the ordinances provided no means to return money to the police department if an agreement was not reached, leading them to seek to prevent the city council from reallocating the money.

Kansas City leaders, however, called claims in the lawsuit legally and factually false. City leaders argued that the city council acted within bounds of its constitutional and statutory authority.

The police commissioners have oversight on KCPD operations while the City Council sets the police department’s annual budget.

With an exception for a brief period, the police department has been under state control, a product of the Civil War, the Confederacy and white supremacy, historians say.

Lucas has said the city had a legal argument under the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says people have to be treated the same under the law.

The city also maintained it followed the appropriation process to fund the police department and that Missouri provides it the authority to revisit any money that exceeds the state funding requirement of 20% of the city’s general revenue.

(The Kansas City Star’s Robert Cronkleton and Luke Nozicka contributed to this report.)

©2021 The Kansas City Star. Visit at kansascity.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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