Kansas City Mayor Lucas Says He's Passed 'Radical' Criminal Justice Reform, Some Say 'It's Not Enough'
Activists calling for Lucas to defund the Kansas City Police Department say calling the changes 'radical' feels like ‘a slap in the face.’
Protesters gathered at Kansas City police headquarters and City Hall after the grand jury decision not to charge Louisville police with the killing of Breonna Taylor.
The group of about one hundred protesters chanted Taylor’s name, called for Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith to be fired, and renewed demands to abolish the police.
A leader from the civil rights organization Black Rainbow, speaking over a megaphone, singled out Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
“Mayor Lucas, who by his actions has decided that blue lives matter and black lives don’t,” he yelled to the crowd, which met him with the refrain “that ain’t right.”
Across the country, cities and states are grappling with how to enact meaningful criminal justice reform in the wake of a summer of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. In Kansas City, Lucas and the city council have passed more than a dozen pieces of legislation which the mayor calls “radical.”
But not everyone sees them that way.
Pressured to pass reform now
Calls to defund the police and remove Smith as police chief began in the weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
And activists like Kyharra Williams, who helped found the civil rights group White Rose KC, says elected officials across the country should be feeling pressure to act.
“We're not asking, we're demanding more of our city council members, of our mayors, of everyone involved until change happens,” Williams says. “And so I think perhaps [Lucas] is feeling the pressure of that — as he should.”
Lucas acknowledges he is feeling some pressure to enact change. But he also maintains that criminal justice reform has been part of his agenda since he took office.
Since the death of George Floyd, the city council has removed marijuana possession as a city violation, required Kansas City police to make more data public, and created a special administrative court for parking tickets.
The council has also launched a review of the city code of ordinances to identify and remove outdated racist language and laws that disproportionately target Black Kansas Citians.
Lucas says the reforms are all aimed at keeping the city's disadvantaged out of the criminal court system — and out of jail.
“I think as we talk about a lot of our reforms on the criminal justice side, I have always looked to how do we decriminalize poverty? How do we make sure that the city is fair,” Lucas says.
Kansas City municipal court administrator Megan Pfannenstiel says keeping people out of jail is her goal, too.
But she worries taking parking tickets — which are not jail-able offenses to begin with — out of court could have unintended consequences.
Pfannenstiel says the court processes between 40,000 and 60,000 new filings a year of parking and other companion tickets, like expired tags and drivers' licenses. Under the legislation passed by the city council in August, those tickets will be handled by an administrative tribunal.
A speeding violation or a citation for driving while intoxicated, however, would still be handled at municipal court. Pfannenstiel worries that could make things more complicated.
For example, if someone gets a speeding ticket and a ticket for an expired registration. The speeding ticket would go through the municipal court, but the registration ticket might be handled administratively.
“Does that mean that person then has to go to two different places to contest their [tickets]? That, to me, is a little concerning because one of the things the courts really been trying to work on is trying to make it kind of an easier process to navigate,” Pfannenstiel says.
She adds that in court you’re presumed innocent, whereas, an administrative process is not held to that standard.
Lucas calls those concerns “a red herring.” He says his goal is to reduce the contact Black, brown and low-income Kansas Citians have with law enforcement.
“Look, life is confusing and vexing and challenging each day,” Lucas said. “But I don't think that telling somebody who's got unpaid parking tickets that the best way to deal with it is to get arrested, processed, charged — probably released right after — that that's better than saying, ‘Look, if you don't pay, then there will be a boot on your vehicle, or there'll be an assessment on your tax bill at the end of the year.’”
Pfannenstiel does applaud the mayor for other reforms, including a measure that would divert defendants experiencing a mental or substance abuse crisis from jail and instead place them in triage centers until they are stable enough to either elect to enter a treatment court or go to jail.
She says the municipal court is often an important link to services like drug rehabilitation and domestic violence mentorship programs.
“It does help that the court has a little bit of a hammer on them that if they don't comply, that they will go to jail,” Pfannenstiel says. “But that's why it's important that the court have an option of a jail — because we have to have that punishment and that arm to help make the person take advantage of the services.”
Stepping stones or radical change
Lucas says while his reforms may not be as flashy as calls to abolish the police, they are the first steps toward dismantling systems that are inherently racist.
“I know there's this battle right now between incrementalism versus radical change. Uh, I actually think a lot of this was radical change. There are people that have their own lives changed by small offenses that build up to big ones,” Lucas says.
Lucas also notes the changes he’s proposed to the Board of Police Commissioners including reforming the Office of Community Complaints and compelling police officers to intervene if they witness excessive force.
But for many activists, like Kyharra Williams, radical change does not mean fixing systems that are designed to oppress.
“I think the problem with discussing the validity of these changes is that it's difficult to call it a broken system because, in fact, the system is perfect. It's doing exactly what it was designed to do,” Williams says.
Lucas remains opposed to defunding or making any major cuts to the police department. And he says removing KCPD Chief Rick Smith would merely be a “superficial step.”
Williams says she can appreciate the measures Lucas has taken as stepping stones. But she won’t call them victories.
“We've been fighting far too long under the same governance, under the same guidelines, and always striving for little changes and allowing those to carry more weight than they should,” Williams says.
“And I think people out here, like myself, are just tired of those little changes being seen as bigger victories and seeing the movement be pushed to the side, seeing Black lives be pushed to the side. Because (city officials say) ‘Oh, we did this little thing for you,’ and I just think it's more of a slap in the face,” she explains.
And as the protests continue over the failure of the system to provide accountability, the tense debate over what’s enough will continue.