Published June 4th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Ask just about any Kansas Citian about police and wildly differing responses will be given about their numbers, usefulness and responsiveness to the community.
In some portions of the city, as evidenced by a recent meeting of Northland residents, police are held aloft as “heroes,” protectors of law-abiding citizens who regularly take on the most violent of society’s criminals. The prospect of losing officers due to budget changes stokes fear for those who hold this viewpoint.
To others, particularly in the urban core, police are often the focus of fear, prompting accusations that officers routinely and flagrantly disrespect the communities they are entrusted to protect, while working inside a culture that’s resistant to change. Fewer officers or better trained ones with new roles are solutions often cited by those more critical of police.
Despite such starkly different viewpoints, Kansas Citians share a desire to feel safe from crime. They also share something else in common: A lack of hard data to illustrate where officers currently work, how busy they keep and if current staffing is allocated correctly.
That lack of information helps fuel opposing viewpoints about where crime exists, who commits it and whether the current deployment of police keeps it at bay, or is capable of solving it.
One of the biggest rounds of applause in the Northland meeting called to discuss controversial ordinances that would reallocate police funding came after a woman asserted: “We don’t need social justice. We need rule of law.”
Police staffing is not an exact science, and it is increasingly complex. But there are studies by the U.S. Department of Justice and policing organizations addressing what variables should be considered and what hasn’t proven to be the most efficient for taxpayer’s dollars.
Departments, experts warn, sometimes put too much emphasis on per capita formulas, inadvertently incentivizing poor police performance by staffing heavily around crime trends. Oftentimes, they say, departments also hire more officers simply because funds are available, without enough regard for what services are actually needed and desired by residents.
Steveland Young, who will take up the same protest he’s held for a year this Friday outside Kansas City Police Department headquarters, is adamant that no honest answer will ever come from within the department on staffing for sworn officers.
“They want you to believe that you need more cops,” Young said. “But they don’t. Not if they were putting their resources into the community.”
That is the central argument behind the controversial attempt by some members of the City Council and Mayor Quinton Lucas to redirect $42.3 million of the police budget into a new Community Services and Prevention Fund. (The shift represents about 18% of the $239 million police budget. )
The ordinances, approved by a 9-4 vote May 21, call for the department to contract through City Manager Brian Platt to use those monies for “community engagement, outreach, intervention, and other public services.”
The legal backlash was swift. A lawsuit filed May 28 by the state-appointed Police Board of Commissioners is challenging the city’s right to insert the council’s will into police spending.
Department supporters fear that shifting funding would result in officers being fired, a contention that the mayor and others say is incorrect.
“Absolutely not,” Lucas responded to the suspicion that these changes will result in fewer officers on the street. “That is why we included the money for a new recruiting class.”
Lucas made his comments this week during a lengthy interview on KCUR’s “Up To Date.”
“This isn’t just something that came out of the mind of Quinton Lucas or some on the City Council,” the mayor said. “We read the Kansas City Chief of Police’s blog that mentioned some of the very important community activities that the police department already does. Social workers were listed. Our 911 dispatchers are often cited. Our community interaction officers are important. This was really a step of us saying, ‘we agree.’ … Let’s make sure we continue to have it supported, that we have it funded.”
The police, Young believes, are as guilty as anyone for stoking perceptions within Northland residents that portions of the city south of the river are extremely dangerous.
“They have them scared of Black and brown people,” he said of Northland residents.
Young is a Black man who grew up in Kansas City, graduated from Van Horn High School and now lives in the historic Northeast. He has helped lead the protests outside of police headquarters downtown every Friday since the death of George Floyd by now-convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Young will be outside police headquarters at 6 p.m. today (June 4), the one-year anniversary of the local protests.
“I know who America really is,” Young said about attitudes around policing that often come with racial dog whistles. “And I know who the KCPD is.”
The Kansas City Police Department is largely organized by geographic boundaries, with fairly equal representations of the population managed through six different patrol divisions.
The Northland is served by two patrol divisions; North and Shoal Creek. The rest of the city is divided into East, Metro, Central and the South division.
When demands for service are weighed by 911 and other calls for assistance, differences are quickly apparent.
Kansas City is akin to policing several small cities, each with its unique needs. The sheer geographic size of the northern areas that encompass Clay and Platte counties, for example, make it challenging to keep response times in an acceptable range.
But Northland residents have fewer policing needs, judged by one strong measure. Residents in the two Northland patrol divisions asked for police service far less than residents in each of the other divisions, according to a 2020 annual report by the department.
A more detailed breakdown of what those calls are asking of police would be necessary for deeper insight into the Northland’s needs for police services and elsewhere in the city.
Northland businessman Mickey Younghanz was at the Northland meeting and said that residents there just want to feel fairly protected, especially as neighborhoods add population. But the sprawling land base also means gaining effective leadership to rally voices is difficult, he said.
Younghanz unsuccessfully ran as a Republican against Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur last year for Senate District 17.
A common belief is that the Northland already gets short shrift from the department and that any changes will cut the numbers of officers currently patrolling there.
The lawsuit filed by the Board of Police Commissioners challenging the reallocation ordinances did drill down into which portions of the city are most affected by violent crime.
“Central, Metro and East patrol divisions are Kansas City’s urban patrol divisions and account not only for the vast majority of calls for service, but their residents also suffer from the majority of violent crime (74.6%) and property crimes (67.1%),” the suit pointed out in arguing against shifting any funding from the divisions within the core of the city.
The city, per the judge’s order, now has more time to file its reply to the lawsuit.
Notably, the ordinances in question shifted funding from a wide range of police services including the chief’s office, the helicopter unit, fleet operations, human resources, the investigations bureau, the crime lab, purchasing and building operations.
The new ordinances also specifically targeted the urban core’s divisions, slicing $4,019,867 from East Patrol, $8,263,975 from Metro and $9,701,137 from Central. Budget allocations for North and Shoal Creek, the two Northland divisions, were untouched.
Police department staffing numbers, as of June 1, seem to track with the areas where violent crime and calls for assistance are higher.
Central patrol had 153 sworn officers, East had 147, Metro had 132 and South had 86. The two Northland divisions showed Shoal Creek with 76 officers and North with 83.
The debate is shaped by semantics. While the mayor and most council members say they are “reclassifying funds,” opponents speak of “defunding” the police.
Melesa Johnson, a special advisor to the mayor, is among those tasked with pushing back against what supporters say are unfair characterizations of the new approach.
She insisted following the Northland meeting that this is “not defunding the department,” but rather “reroutes” of funding back to police. She said all of the money shifted from the budget line items would go back to the police department by contracts it would sign through the city manager.
Mayor Lucas has also continued to press for the changes, telling KCUR’s Steve Kraske on “Up To Date” this week that his goal is simple and focused: “How can we keep people from getting killed in Kansas City?”
Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency.