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Kansas City police will be fully funded next year — but legal settlements may cost millions more

Man in suit, seated at right of a table, gestures while four people seated at left with back to camera listen.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith responds to questions from city council members on Thursday during a special meeting to discuss the 2022-23 police budget.

Contrary to the police union president’s claim that Kansas City is “defunding the police,” the city is poised to hire new officers and raise salaries.

Despite paying out $5.9 million in legal settlements last year — and with several potentially large claims still pending — the Kansas City Police Department has budgeted just $2.4 million for settlements this fiscal year.

Mayor Quinton Lucas on Thursday said the budgeted figure is a “huge concern,” given several high-profile cases, namely one brought by the family of Cameron Lamb, a 26-year-old Black man shot and killed by a Kansas City police detective. The detective, Eric DeValkenaere, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action last month and is awaiting sentencing. Lamb’s family has sued the Board of Police Commissioners, seeking $10 million.

During the last two fiscal years, KCPD has paid out more than $8.5 million in legal settlements. In 2019-20, the amount was $2.7 million and in 2020-21 it was $5.9 million.

Lucas asked Police Chief Rick Smith about the payouts at a budget hearing, saying there are at least 15 cases pending against the department in Jackson County Circuit Court. Lucas worried that the money would be taken from important items like salaries.

“We're just acting like we won't have to pay,” Lucas said after the meeting. “And the bigger question for me is, well, where's that money gonna come from later? It sets up the battles of next year and the year after, where there will be a midyear budget request.”

Smith didn’t respond to Lucas at the meeting, and a KCPD staffer blamed the shortfall on a late $1 million payment from the state of Missouri.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields on Tuesday asked Smith during a budget hearing if he’d provide the last three years of excessive-force payouts. On Thursday, Shields hadn’t received the information and said she expected it “when hell freezes over.”

120921_lowe_lemon tweet.jpg
Twitter
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Brad Lemon, president of Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 99, tweeted on Monday that Kansas City is "defunding the police," which is false.

Overall, the city appears poised to spend $243.4 million on the police department, but the total budget is $285.5 million for fiscal year 2022-23, an increase of 11 percent, according to police documents. The total includes the city's portion and state and federal grants.

Smith, board commissioners and city council members said their first concern is bringing up staffing levels in the department, which is currently down some 200 officers. The staffing deficit is due to retirements, small academy classes and, according to Smith, poor pay and high stress.

The department currently has 1,191 sworn officers, 510 civilians and 26 officer candidates. Lucas and others want the department staffed up to 1,412 officers.

Bishop Mark Tolbert, chair of the board of commissioners, said he hopes to get more officers in the hiring pipeline by funding police academy classes and looking to local community colleges. But Smith said the biggest problem is salaries, with his department weighing in lowest of 11 metro agencies, according to a survey by the local police union.

“I don’t know what’s going to change an officer’s mind if he wants to leave here,” he said. “Pay is going to be the No. 1 issue.”

Lucas said the board should announce now that it plans to spend millions to hire more officers and raise salaries, but Tolbert said he didn’t want to move too quickly on such an announcement because he may end up with “egg on my face later.”

The hearings come in a week that witnessed six homicides, bringing the total to 146 this year. (There were 173 last year.) After a violent weekend, Brad Lemon, president of the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 99, tweeted on Monday that it had been a “very sad weekend.”

“Multiple homicides and assaults, all while the patrol divisions had buyback positions available because of manpower shortages,” Lemon tweeted. “This is what defunding the police looks like.”

Asked after Thursday’s budget meeting whether he still thought there was “defunding of the police” happening, Lemon said he will wait on the ongoing budget talks. The city’s budget is approved at the end of March and goes into effect in May.

“Today was obviously a really good start of two groups that haven't talked much lately,” he said. “So, you know, we’re really excited about that and we're hoping that we get a good resolution out of this. Because at the end of the day, the citizens deserve a department that can do policing of the city this size.”

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