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Court deals blow to Kansas City Mayor Lucas in fight over control of police department budget

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas speaking to reporters in June after a Board of Police Commissioners meeting at the Kansas City Police Department headquarters.
Peggy Lowe
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas speaking to reporters in June after a Board of Police Commissioners meeting at the Kansas City Police Department headquarters.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city was weighing its options, including appealing the ruling.

Updated: October 5, 2021 at 5:20 PM CDT
This story was updated to include comments by Councilwoman Heather Hall.

In a blow to the city’s efforts to assert a measure of control over the Kansas City Police Department, a judge on Tuesday ruled that Mayor Quinton Lucas and the city council acted illegally when they sought to transfer midyear $42.3 million of the police department’s $239 million budget to “community services and prevention.”

Jackson County Circuit Judge Patrick Campbell ruled that Missouri law grants the Board of Police Commissioners exclusive management and control of the police department. He said the move by Lucas and the city council interfered with that.

Once the board adopts a budget, Campbell ruled, the city’s obligation to fund it is not a discretionary act.

The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners is unique in that the city does not control it. Four of its five members are appointed by the governor. The mayor is its fifth member.

City Council's decision

In May, a supermajority of the city council approved the reallocation move, which was proposed by Lucas and endorsed by various police reform groups. Lucas said the proposal was intended to support innovative ways to fight crime and address root causes of crime like poverty, lack of adequate mental health and housing instability.

The police board, however, immediately filed suit, claiming once the $239 million budget for this fiscal year was approved, the city had no discretion to reappropriate the money.

In a statement following Campbell’s ruling, the KCPD said, “KCPD engages in the budget process six months ahead of when the budget year begins. The police department puts a great deal of effort into this process as does the city. This budget process directly affects not only the police department and the city, but the members in our community. We appreciate the court recognized the validity of the 2020-2021 budget process.”

Lucas, for his part, said the city was weighing its options, including appealing the ruling.

“Given the negative implications of the decision on any mid-year budget adjustments, including those now before Council in the Department’s favor, I will continue to ask the Board of Police Commissioners to increase staffing of law enforcement based on the Department’s current fiscal year budgeting of 1,413 law enforcement positions, with only 1,200 positions filled today,” Lucas said in a statement that he posted on Twitter. “Council has supported the positions and there is no longer any excuse to be understaffed.”

He said the court’s decision provided “a pathway forward” for the city to require the KCPD “to engage in discussions related to crime prevention throughout future budget cycles …”

Councilwoman Heather Hall, whose First District is in Clay County and who opposed the transfer of funds, called the decision "great news."

"This was wrong and secretive to begin with," she posted in a tweet. "The people of Kansas City deserve a safe City with adequately-funded police. Great news, great decision!"

Lucas wanted the $42 million reallocated to provide for community engagement, outreach, prevention and other public services, including an additional police recruiting class. The ordinances approved by the city council required the board to enter into a separate agreement with the city in order to obtain those funds.

The board claimed that if the ordinances were permitted to stand, it would run out of funds for the KCPD’s operations before the end of the fiscal year.

In siding with the police board, Campbell made it clear that the case was only about whether the ordinances violated Missouri law. In a footnote to his decision, he said the case was not “a determination of the values of ‘defunding the police.’"

He continued, “This judgment does not resolve whether citizens of Kansas City should exert direct control over their law enforcement agency. 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.”

At a hearing last month, police board attorney Patrick McInerney said that if Lucas’ plan were implemented, the city would have permanent authority to require the police department to spend its budget according to the city’s priorities.

City Attorney Tara Kelly argued that the city had the right to revisit appropriations, noting that the KCPD had changed its budget 65 times in the last 10 years for things like buying body cameras or because of reductions in funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She called the budget “a working document.”

But Campbell said the city’s and board’s previous dealings were irrelevant and didn’t permit the city’s conduct, “which the Board did not approve and has specifically rejected by filing its lawsuit.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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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