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Business Groups Urge Reform Of Kansas City Police Department As KCPD Worries About Staff Losses

Kansas City Police work the scene of a rolling, drive-by shooting off Troost Avenue last year near 46th Street.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police work the scene of a rolling, drive-by shooting last year near Troost Avenue and 46th Street.

Two business groups made recommendations, including independent investigations of excessive force cases. Police Chief Rick Smith had no comment but complained that his staffing levels will soon be the lowest in 25 years.

Business leaders on Tuesday called for independent investigations into excessive force cases by the Kansas City Police Department while Chief Rick Smith complained about a loss of employees.

As the KCPD and City Hall remain locked in a legal battle over proposed budget reforms — and business officials as well as Black Lives Matter protesters call for major reforms — Smith continued to hammer away at how his department has been harmed by the employee attrition.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, presented three recommendations first made in July, saying they held 35 meetings, including 14 listening sessions with community groups, local and national law enforcement, local prosecutors and police oversight organizations.

Both groups found “broad dissatisfaction” with the current process of investigating officer misconduct cases and complaints from the public, which goes through the Office of Community Complaints, as well as KCPD leadership. Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, said a reform structure should employ outside investigators who report to the Board of Police Commissioners.

“We believe the process can be improved,” Reardon said. “And we’ve learned in our listening sessions that there’s a lack of trust in the current process.”

A coalition of civil rights groups has called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the KCPD and many activists have called for Smith's removal.

The other business group recommendations call for more diversity on the Board of Police Commissioners, a majority white board appointed by Missouri's governor, and the re-establishment of a community advisory board.

The business groups also asked that the city and the board “engage in dialogue rather than litigation” to find common ground. That was a nod to the current board lawsuit against the city council and Mayor Quinton Lucas, who pushed through a plan in May that would reallocate about one-fifth of the police budget for social services and crime prevention programs.

Asked by board president Mark Tolbert if he had any comment on the recommendations, Smith said he did not.

Police spokesman Jake Becchina said in an email that the KCPD will continue to work with its many community partners, including the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

“The board uses these opportunities to receive input from the public and from community partners to influence their oversight of the department activities as well as policies and procedures,” Becchina said.

Newly appointed board commissioner Dawn Cramer said if an advisory board is created, its members should see KCPD officer training up close.

“I think it would be a really good idea for them to do a ride-along and for them to do some of the little tactical things that they do when these officers' lives are in fear,” she said.

Departmental staffing hits low point

Smith painted a dire picture of staffing in the department, with his command staff saying it's going back to levels not seen in 25 years. Smith has attributed the losses to retirements and others leaving the profession, a reflection of national trends.

The KCPD currently has 1,207 sworn officers and 504 non-sworn officers, Deputy Chief Michael Hicks said.

“By the end of 2021, KCPD will be below law enforcement staffing numbers of 1997, when KCPD had 1,185 law enforcement officers,” Hicks said. “KCPD is quickly approaching law enforcement numbers of the early 1990s, setting us back 25 years.”

Smith said officers will be leaving two popular programs that work with school children, and the downtown foot patrol will be decimated. Decisions must be made soon on whether some of the units, like property crimes, will continue to operate, he said.

“The staffing issue is a very serious and real issue in the police department and it is going to affect — hopefully not affect — the services we provide to citizens,” he said. “But everything else is going to be affected.”

Smith has complained in the past of a hiring freeze, which he blames on a lack of funds coming from city hall. Chris Hernandez, a city spokesman, said the city has no say in line items in the KCPD budget because the state controls the department.

But the department did agree with the city on a reduction of “close to 100 budgeted but vacant/unfilled positions,” Hernandez said.

“As officers retire, as with our own city employees, the expectation is that the remaining budgeted salary can be used to backfill those retiring officers, likely with budget space to spare,” Hernandez said.

“For example, a retiring officer leaves at a salary much higher than a new recruit. Even accounting for any retirement payouts, KCPD should have more than enough salary space to add new classes of recruits.”

Hicks said there has been a bump in recruits. KCPD expects nine to graduate from the police academy in December and another 45 to graduate in March, he said.

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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