Successful police reform starts at local level, one expert argues

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As funding for the Kansas City Police Department makes national headlines, one expert says local oversight of the department is essential if the community wants to see significant change.

Thaddeus Johnson is an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University. He’s also a former ranking law enforcement officer in Memphis, Tennessee.

“That distance between people being served and their leaders, that’s problematic to me,” Johnson said. “People always look at the state, look at the federal government when there’s talks about reform, but reform is a community-level issue.”

Kansas City, Missouri, has the only police department in the country with a state-appointed board overseeing it.

State control of the police department is a relic of the Pendergast era, meant to root out corruption and keep the Kansas City political boss at bay. But Tom Pendergast died in 1945, and calls for local control of KCPD have grown louder in recent years.

It was one of the reasons Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas cited when he announced a pair of ordinances that would give local leaders more control over the police budget — and in turn police policy.

“We need to make sure that we are actually addressing accountability, that we are making sure that we have a police department that is talking to and listening to our community,” Lucas said. “We need to make sure that we have the accountability that we have for our city bus system, our city public works, and so many other areas and categories.”

The ordinance, which was quickly passed hours after it was proposed, allows the city manager to negotiate with the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners about how the department spends around $42 million of the department’s total budget of $239 million. It also includes $3 million for a new recruitment class.

KCPD still gets 20% of the city’s overall budget to do with as it pleases.

The political fallout was swift, with Police Chief Rick Smith, police union leader Brad Lemon, and four council members that represent the Northland saying they were caught off guard by the move.

Some state lawmakers are already calling on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session.

“For them to play games with KCPD’s budget, it just goes beyond the pale,” Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said.

How the roughly $42 million that now goes into the Community Services and Prevention Fund will be spent is not yet clear.

“I wouldn’t say that I have a list of demands, so to speak. At this point we’re going to have some conversations over the next couple weeks, and however long it takes to get things right,” said City Manager Brian Platt.

In order to truly have a transformation in policing, Johnson said, money needs to be allocated to mental health resources for officers.

“If an officer is involved in a use-of-force event, if an officer is assaulted, if an officer is just struggling in life, you know, that police officers when it comes to divorce rates, it’s one of the higher professions, so those are issues that are going on and it’s hard to serve those communities when you’re suffering from this,” he said.

The Kansas City Police Department has instituted a number of reforms over the past year, including a duty to intervene policy, banning chokeholds, and a new first amendment policy that would limit the use of projectiles during protests.

Speaking broadly about police reform efforts, Johnson said they’re often too reactive and not focused enough on limiting negative interactions in the first place.

He said changes implemented by the city council recently, like eliminating penalties for jaywalking, are a good start.

“The jaywalking removes that opportunity now [for negative police interactions]. Think about the high profile police shootings, none of them have been for a warrant for murder, serial rapists, they were traffic stops. Eric Garner was selling loosies.”

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