© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Kansas City Council members want to search for a new police chief, but they don't have that power

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith talks during a press conference in September of 2020 to update the progress of Operation LeGend.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith talks during a press conference in September of 2020. Smith will retire next spring, but he continues to face calls to step down earlier.

Kansas City Council members failed to reach a consensus Thursday on whether to jumpstart the process to replace Police Chief Rick Smith, who will retire next year but whose current leadership continues to be fraught with controversy.

The Kansas City Council rejected a proposal to spend $200,000 of city money for a nationwide search to replace Rick Smith as chief of police.

The measure was introduced by Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who acknowledged the chief reports to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners — not to the city council — but who wanted the city to have some role despite the lack of local control.

“I’m just trying to find a way for us to have a positive impact, recognizing the fact that we do not have local control, and that this power resides with the police commission, “ Shields told her colleagues. “I would still like us as a body to have some influence on that process, not in the sense of who they select but in the sense of encouraging them to do a national search and encouraging them to begin that search immediately.”

Shields’ proposal failed to get any other council votes. Councilman Brandon Ellington said it would be a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, and the discussion illustrated the council’s impotence in the police department’s governance.

“There is no control factor outside of exclusive control of the police board,” Ellington said. “There is no guarantee that a national search firm will produce any results that the council will be able to support.”

Calls for Smith to step down intensify following controversy

The council action follows more than a week of discussions about Smith’s continued leadership of the police department.

On Nov. 19, a Kansas City police detective was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Cameron Lamb, a Black man, in 2019. Smith had been supportive of the detective. Community activists and social justice leaders have long called for Smith’s ouster over Lamb’s death and other officer-involved shootings.

Four days after the verdict was announced, Smith met with Mayor Quinton Lucas and Police Board President Mark Tolbert to discuss Smith’s tenure as chief.

Later in the day, the police department said that Smith, who became chief in 2017, had always planned to retire after five years.

A memo obtained by KCUR called for Smith to step down on April 22, 2022 and to be paid his normal salary through August 2022.

The police board then met in closed session on Monday Nov. 29. After that meeting, the board announced Smith would remain in charge through spring 2022, which would allow him to help negotiate the next police budget with the city.

Then on Nov. 30, a video surfaced in which Smith could be heard saying “bad guy’s dead” following the fatal shooting of Cameron Lamb. That recording prompted more outrage and some renewed calls for Smith’s dismissal.

Some city council members have become increasingly upset with Smith’s leadership, although other council members, including Teresa Loar, whose son is a police officer, remain staunch supporters.

Smith does not answer directly to the mayor or city council, although Lucas is one member of board of police commissioners. But the police department gets nearly all its funding from the city, and the council votes on the police budget.

This week, some council members, including Shields, said it didn’t make sense to negotiate future police spending with an outgoing chief. The new budget will be adopted at the end of March 2022 and takes effect May 1, 2022.

Shields’ failed ordinance stated: “Any funding for Budget Year 2022-23, including any funding that the Council may choose to authorize over the required statutory minimum, should be based on the public safety priorities to be set by the newly-selected Chief of Police to better address the future public safety needs of the citizens of Kansas City.”

Since the ordinance was defeated, the details of any search for Smith’s replacement and the future of police budget negotiations remain in limbo.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.