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Does Kansas City’s New Police Budget Plan ‘Defund The Police'?

Members of the Defense of Traditional Family and Property, a national conservative Catholic group, pray outside a town hall meeting held by Northland Neighborhoods, Inc., about a new plan to reallocate part of the Kansas City Police budget.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Members of the Defense of Traditional Family and Property, a national conservative Catholic group, pray outside a town hall meeting held by Northland Neighborhoods, Inc., about a new plan to reallocate part of the Kansas City Police budget.

Mayor Quinton Lucas’s plan to reallocate part of the police department budget has been criticized as “defunding the police.” In fact, the plan earmarks just one-fifth of the budget for different priorities and increases the budget by $3 million.

On a rainy night in north Kansas City last month, a dozen people waved flags and homemade signs as hundreds of cars streamed into a shopping center.

“Blessed be God and his angels and saints,” said the leader, Francis Slobodnik, which came back in a disjointed echo, interrupted by the occasional honk.

Slobodnik is a regional leader for the American Society for the Defense of Traditional Family and Property, a national Catholic group that usually protests against LGBT rights, abortion, or Communism. Slobodnik said his flock was braving a rainy night on May 27 to pray for the brave who are out no matter the weather.

“Without the protection of law enforcement, our lives would be the survival of the fittest,” he said. “Police, law enforcement, protect everyone’s lives, make us all safe. I sleep soundly in my bed at night – you do, too – because there’s somebody who isn’t sleeping at night.”

Since Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas proposed a plan in May to reallocate about a fifth of the police department budget, he’s faced blowback from Northland residents, the police department and the Board of Police Commissioners, which is suing to get the plan thrown out.

Most of the criticism is about “defunding the police,” a term first used by protestors in Minnesota last summer following the murder of George Floyd, but has since been co-opted by the right as a rallying cry to fight police reform measures across the country.

Rashawn Ray, a professor of Sociology and the executive director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland, said reactions to the new plan depend on who is reacting and where they live. The term “defund the police” has become racialized, he said.

“The people who don’t want to see any change are the ones who often experience policing and public safety in the way this other group of people who wants changes actually want to experience policing and public safety,” he said.

Lucas’s plan does not defund the police, and could even increase the department’s budget, at least in the short term, by about $3 million. But that’s not what many believe in the Northland, including Greg Mills, a resident who spoke at the meeting.

“Reallocation versus defunding. We hear that, and you can put all the lipstick you want on the defunding pig, but it is defunding,” Mills said, to refrains from the crowd of, “That’s right!” and “Yes, it is!”

North Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler, who had to stop the town hall meeting twice to calm the mostly-white crowd of hundreds in the Northland last month, said he’s opposed to Lucas’s plan, in part, because he hasn’t seen any crime prevention programs that work.

But Fowler also said he doesn’t have a come-back when his constituents claim the plan defunds the police, yet he allows that it could be a “possible representation.”

I think there is room in there that there could be a reduction in the amount of funding police get based upon the strict language, the ordinance,” Fowler said. “Do I really think we'll get a reduction? Probably not.”

Passed through two ordinances, the plan takes about $44 million from the police budget – about one-fifth of $240 million -- and reallocates it to what the city is calling the “community services and prevention fund.” That money would fund community engagement, outreach, prevention, intervention, and other public services. City Manager Brian Platt and the police commission would negotiate how to spend that money.

The second ordinance assigns an additional $3 million for a new police academy class.

Ray, who has watched this debate in several cities, said many people are unaware that police budgets have grown over the last 30-40 years, often because of the power of the police unions, and they can eat up to a quarter of the city’s budget. He says that tilts the power in one direction: towards law enforcement.

“One of the things that the mayor and the city council, at least the majority of them, are also aiming to do is to shift accountability, to shift power, and then to also shift funding within police department budgets,” Ray said. “That's different from simply removing funding from law enforcement.”

In his many explanations defending his plan, Lucas continues to point out that the board’s lawsuit is about keeping control of the police department in the hands of the Missouri governor, who appoints the members. The board has controlled the police department since 1939.

“This is a lawsuit filed about power,” Lucas told KCUR’s “Up To Date” on June 22. “It reflects nothing about standing up for law enforcement. This is not a lawsuit about standing up for our rank-and-file officers, this is not a lawsuit to support them. This is not a lawsuit to address public safety.”

The plan is now on hold pending the board’s lawsuit. Hearings are expected in Jackson County District Court this summer.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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