KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “You have now until 4 hours for a police officer to respond.”
This is the response Mark Miller, a burglary victim, said he received each time he called Kansas City, Missouri Police Department’s non-emergency number to report a break-in at his home located east of Arrowhead Stadium.
Miller, who now lives in Garden City, has been working to sell his home in Kansas City, which has been broken into numerous times.
He said he’s lost at least $12,000 worth of stolen property.
From the time he initially called, to the time an officer finally arrived on scene, Miller said the burglars had returned at least three times to finish off the job.
“The fourth or fifth time that I had called, an officer called me shortly after that and told me it would be better off, and faster, if I went into the police department and gave my report that way,” Miller said.
“Then, he said, ‘In all honesty, Jackson County doesn’t care about break-ins.’ I told him, ‘Well, you guys are gonna care if the thief has a shotgun hole in his chest,’ and his partner laughed, and he chuckled and said, ‘No, probably not even then.’”
Miller said he called the non-emergency number six to seven times before an officer finally responded.
“When I did get to speak to an officer, and the officers that came out and wrote the report, they were nice,” Miller said. “They were fine. It was just, they said they’re undermanned. They need the help and they just don’t have it.”
Who controls the KCPD budget?
In early October, a Jackson County judge ruled Kansas City violated state law after the city moved more than $42 million from the KCPD’s budget to crime prevention, community engagement and outreach efforts.
The state of Missouri filed the lawsuit in May on behalf of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners against Mayor Quinton Lucas and the City Council, disputing the budget shift, which aimed to strip at least $21 million from patrol divisions in the city’s highest violent crime regions.
According to speakers at a town hall event in late June, there aren’t enough officers available to patrol the Northland as it is, something that is largely dependent on money available for salaries in the police budget.
“I’ve got both ordinances right here and not one place in these ordinances does it say this money will stay in the police budget, which means at City Hall, who knows where it is going to go,” Teresa Loar, second district at-large city council member, said at the town hall meeting.
Concerned residents argued changes in police funding would worsen police response times and personnel staffing, which suburban residents say is a growing issue for individuals living in the city’s outskirts.
Melesa Johnson, special advisor to the mayor, spoke to residents at the town hall meeting, saying reallocating police funds was not a move to defund police, but simply reroute money to the police department.
“Kansas City has always been dangerous in certain pockets of it,” Johnson said. “All we are trying to do with this money is make sure it is being deployed in the most effective way because clearly something is not working.”
But poor response times and ambiguity about what the borrowed funds might finance left opponents skeptical.
“You can put all the lipstick you want on the defunding pig, but it is defunding,” said Greg Mills, a former major with KCPD, said.
Lucas said the police department has mishandled its funding for years.
“Last year, the year before, we voted on budgets that said, ‘It will cost roughly $136 million to have 1,400 officers,’” he said. “We don’t have 1,400 officers but they got more than $136 million. Where was the money going? That’s where my question is.”
He said KCPD has a bad habit of using the budget’s salary line item as a “slush fund” to pay for legal fees and other expenses, often approaching the city mid-year for a budget adjustment.
“What annoys the heck out of me and has for years is that in the middle of the year, every year, that’s when they ask for a budget adjustment to actually pay for salary increases or more people,” he said.
“Why isn’t that something that you’re talking about in the beginning of the year? Why don’t you take care of that first, and if you need more money halfway through the year because the air conditioning expense is too high, tell us about that, but make sure that somebody can actually make plans for themselves and their families before that.”
The city’s director of finance testified in court that if the measure were to pass, and KCPD continued to spend money as it does, it would be out of funding by February 2022, the fiscal year doesn’t end until April 30, 2022.
In the end, the judge ruled the funding reallocation measure violated a state law that gives the police board “exclusive management and control” of the department and its budgeting process.
Are response times actually worse?
According to an article published on Safe Smart Living’s website, the average response time for a 911 call in the United States is 10 minutes.
FOX4 requested two years of response time data from the Kansas City Police Department to find out how patrol divisions’ response times vary from region to region.
Data shows median response times for priority one calls, or calls that present extreme, known, or potential danger to human life, in the central patrol division are significantly faster than response times in any other patrol division.
The central patrol division includes neighborhoods such as Westport, downtown, the Country Club Plaza, Hyde Park and Midtown.
Out of KCPD’s six divisions, the Central Patrol Division is the only one to report a median response time below six minutes for priority one calls in the past two years, data shows.
This year, the South Patrol Division, which includes neighborhoods east of Raytown, had the slowest median response time for priority one calls in February at just under 11 minutes.
This is about 41% higher than the central patrol division’s median response time of six minutes and 30 seconds in the same month.
Officer Jason Kern, one of the four patrol officers in Shoal Creek, said the North and Shoal Creek patrol divisions, which cover neighborhoods north of the Missouri River, have a larger geographical land mass than the rest of the patrol divisions combined.
“There’s just such fewer officers working up here compared to the metro, at least when I was working there,” he said.
“Though, I’ve heard they’ve lost quite a few officers down there, as well. It’s just harder to control a whole area this size with a handful of officers.”
Data shows 78 fewer officers patrol there compared to the central patrol division, something Chief of Police Rick Smith attributes to the fact that the majority of Kansas City’s violent crime falls in the central, metropolitan, and east patrol divisions.
“I think our people north of the river, our elected officials and the city council north of the river, understand that they have policing needs and public safety needs out there,” he said.
“Now, I don’t think they have the same need as our southland, obviously, with the violent crime, but I think what we’re talking about here is that people who live in Kansas City, within the circle, expect the same sort of level of police service, whether you live at 85th and Wornall, or you live at Barry Road and North Oak.”
The Central Patrol Division’s median response time for priority one calls was just under five minutes in April 2020, the fastest response time of any KCPD patrol division in a two-year span, data shows.
That same month, Shoal Creek had the slowest median response time, just under nine minutes.
“I think I would just have to say that we need more help and it’s not just gonna be money that’s going to change everything,” Kern said.
“They gotta do something to help out with retention, in addition to recruitment and I’m not going to sit here and say I have all the answers, but we’re definitely trying to fight it with as much as we got.”
Recruiting and retaining police
Smith said the department has struggled to hire and retain staff due to low officer morale in the current political climate, something he says significantly impacts the department’s ability to manage 911 calls.
“If you look at other departments across the country who have faced reduction in staff, reduction in funding, some of them have cancelled going to any property crimes calls,” he said. “To provide the level of service that they want to provide, they have to have way more staffing in able to engage in that task and do it successfully.”
In Texas, the Austin Police Department announced in September law enforcement will no longer respond to non-emergency calls due to staffing shortages.
Austin residents have been asked to use 3-1-1 instead of 9-1-1 to report crimes that are no longer in progress, where the suspect is no longer on scene, and where there is no immediate threat to life or property.
“I think we saw a period of time where policing got devalued and I think that has a tremendous effect on the morale of officers, not just here, but across the country,” Smith said.
He said he believes individuals are less interested in applying for law enforcement positions as public scrutiny amplifies.
FOX4 spoke with Dr. Sarit Weisburd, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel, who said if public trust in law enforcement is low, it is hard for residents to put faith in their police departments to effectively use the budget.
She said police departments need to work with the community to prioritize which services are most valuable to the public.
“My concern is that the Defund the Police movement, and cutting the budgets, is not solution-oriented,” Weisburd said.
“It’s kind of like, punishment-oriented, like, ‘We’re not happy with what the police are doing, so we’re just gonna stop funding and let them make do,’ which I think is also very uninspiring for police officers, or police chiefs, who are trying to make things better.”
She said if citizens think the way police officers are patrolling is problematic, then it’s important for police departments to listen, and respond by reallocating officers throughout the area.
But in order to effectively redistribute manpower, police departments must have the funds available to reallocate patrol officers, which means leaving police budgets unscathed, she said.
“I think that the general concern that police chiefs raise regarding just how many personnel they have is huge because the less officers you have, the more you’re sending them all over the place to answer 911 calls,” she said.
Lucas said state control over the police department makes it difficult for anyone – the mayor, the city council, even the public – to engage and collaborate with the police department.
“To me, the story isn’t taking money from the police department,” he said. “It’s, ‘How do we make sure that the police department is working with the community?’ and ‘How do we make sure the community works with them?’” he said.
In fact, in 2020, Lucas presented a ballot proposal that would have given voters a chance to decide if they want the current governor-appointed board of commissioners overseeing police, or some other local governance structure.
But that same year, Lucas asked the city council to postpone its approval of the ballot to determine whether to pursue the issue through lobbyists in Jefferson City or to address the issue through a statewide vote, similar to what the city of St. Louis did in 2012, according to NPR.
“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is state control over the police department because it makes it darn hard for somebody who sits in my seat, or somebody who sits on the city council, to make sure these things get done,” Lucas said.
Boots on the ground
East Patrol saw the second-shortest median response time for priority 1 calls in April 2020, at just over six minutes. By April 2021, the median response time for calls went up by about 10%.
Despite living in the East patrol division where the median response time for priority 2 calls, (in which the presence of police may save life, prevent serious injury, major property loss, or lead to an arrest), averages about eight minutes, Miller said he waited more than 20-plus hours for an officer to respond.
Frustrated by the prolonged response times in his area, he said he also sensed officers’ frustration with their current staffing situations.
“I say let them do their job and actually pay them adequately,” he said. “It’s just the police and the teachers that need more money, and get more people out here.”
Lucas said he is adamant about working with the Board of Police Commissioners to address slow response times and diminished police presence in suburban areas.
“You should always have a minimum number of officers to staff areas of population in the city, and I don’t think you should go below numbers that, frankly, we hit too often in the Northland and in south Kansas City,” Lucas said.
Moving forward, he said he is going to strive to push the police department to prioritize hiring more officers, retaining those officers, and paying them well.
“We fundamentally need boots on the ground right now,” Lucas said. “I think the people of Kansas City expect us, not to just have more people who are sitting at desks, but more people that are in squad cars and responding to incidents in Kansas City. That’s what the city council wants and that’s what I want.”