Kansas City police chief tells council committee he wants more officers, higher pay

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Over the past year, Kansas City police responded to more 911 calls than last year while the number of officers responding to those emergencies dramatically decreased, Police Chief Rick Smith told the City Council’s finance committee on Tuesday.

Smith, accompanied by nearly three dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers, gave a budget presentation that stressed the need to hire additional officers and increase pay for uniformed and civilian staff.

Officers responded to 20,000 more 911 calls than they did a year ago. By the end of October, the department was down 192 uniformed officers and 103 civilian workers. In February 2020, the department was down only 26 officers and 48 civilian workers.

“Our workload from these, the citizens and the community members continues to grow, which we’ve had a decrease in manpower to handle that workload,” Smith said.

Tuesday’s budget discussion session took place roughly a week after police commissioners said Smith will retire sometime next spring, earlier than what he had told them in private.

Finance committee members attended the meeting via video conference while Smith appeared in the council chambers.

The early retirement was announced as calls for Smith to step down were renewed Nov. 20 when police Det. Eric DeValkenaere was found guilty of second-degree involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Cameron Lamb.

The hearing Tuesday was the first of two meetings scheduled this week between police officials and members of the City Council. Bishop Mark Tolbert, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, also attended the meeting but said he was there to support Smith.

Police commissioners are scheduled to meet Thursday with council members to discuss variety topics, including police staffing needs, the upcoming budget and the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

The police board recently approved the department’s operating budget of $281 million for the next fiscal year.

After approval by the police board, the budget goes to the city manager’s office for a round of adjustments. City leaders also have the ability to reduce the police department’s allocation to the state-required minimum of 20% of the general fund.

Smith is expected to be on the job during the city’s budget process.

On Tuesday, Smith did not drill down to the specifics spelled out in the department’s budget request, but he did say the police force was greatly impacted by budget cuts imposed by city leaders due the coronavirus pandemic.

The department froze all law enforcement and civilian pay in 2020 and during the first quarter of 2021. No one received a pay increase in 2021 and none were budgeted for 2022.

“Obviously, as I’m sure the theme has been with many departments that have presented, attrition continues to be our biggest concern,” he said. “So because of that we have savings through the year because obviously more people have left the department that was projected.”

The department began filling civilian positions in the second quarter of 2021. A small police academy class, with 26 cadets, began in September. There may be enough money to fund another academy class in February, Smith said.

As the result of the unexpected high number of retirement, the police department had to pay additional money in separation pay to those who have left.

The police department’s current vacancy rate is 14%, which includes decreased staffing in professional development and research, and the investigations bureau, which is down 16%, he said.

“We have vacancies rates across the board,” Smith said.

The proposed $281 million budget includes pay increases for officers and is about $8.1 million more than the $272 million budget request Smith initially presented to the police board. That proposal included a 6% increase from the previous year’s budget and calls for money to pay for new police academy classes.

It also guarantees that $135 million will be dedicated to cover pay increases for sworn police officers and civilian employees. None of those funds is allowed to be used to pay for settlement claims which has been the practice in the past.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, chairwoman of the city’s finance, governance & public safety committee, said while the city does not pay directly out of its revenue streams for judgments or settlement that arise out of excessive use of force clams, the city is expected to reimburse the state fund that makes those payments.

Shields asked Smith if he knew how much was paid this year to settle excessive use of force claims.

“I don’t have that,” Smith responded. “I don’t have it broken down just excessive force either. So, I’d have to get that to you.”

The police department paid out $5.8 million in claims over the past year, which substantially exceeded the budgeted amount. Those settlements included use of force allegations, vehicular crashes involving officers and other legal matters, according to police records.

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