KCPD board system deprives African Americans of police control, new lawsuit says

·3 min read

The head of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City filed a lawsuit this week against Kansas City police and other officials in a fight over how the city’s force is funded.

Gwen Grant filed the petition in an effort to prevent the Board of Police Commissioners from compelling Kansas City to provide them $42.3 million of the police department’s $239 million budget, which has been the focus of ongoing litigation.

In the lawsuit, Grant’s attorneys also took aim at the police board structure, saying it “disproportionately deprives” African Americans of control over the officers who serve their communities. They said it was “implemented and maintained” for a discriminatory purpose.

In May, the City Council voted 9-4 to cut this year’s police budget back to 20% of the city’s general fund, the minimum required by Missouri law.

The savings of $42.3 million, about 18% of the department’s overall budget, would be reallocated to prevention and community policing initiatives. The measure requires City Manager Brian Platt and the police commissioners negotiate how to spend those funds.

The board of police commissioners responded with a lawsuit, voting 4-1 to file against the city. Mayor Quinton Lucas, who sits on the board, was the lone vote against. They argued state law gives them exclusive authority and management of the police department and that Kansas City has to spend at least 20% of its general revenue on policing.

Critics of the City Council’s plan, including four members who represent Northland districts, have tried to portray the measure as “defunding the police.” But it calls for Platt to negotiate with KCPD and no other city department.

In June, Grant filed a motion to intervene in the board’s lawsuit, alleging that the current policing structure fails to give city taxpayers a voice in how the department spends its money. A judge told her to file a separate lawsuit instead, which she did Monday.

“More broadly, this case is about taxation without representation,” her attorneys wrote in the lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court.

While KCPD is a city department and gets most of its funding from city taxpayers, it is overseen by the police board. Four of the board’s five members are appointed by Missouri’s governor, while the city’s mayor is guaranteed the fifth seat.

State control of KCPD has its roots in the Civil War politics of white supremacy and slavery, historians say. During the war, a Missouri governor sympathetic to the Confederacy sought to keep pro-Union St. Louis from controlling weaponry that could benefit the Union. Later, during Reconstruction in the 1870s, the state took the same action in Kansas City.

Kansas City now remains the only major city in the United States that does not have local control of its police department, Grant has said. Her lawyers called that a “singular distinction which is unconstitutionally arbitrary.”

Grant’s suit noted that Missouri has never had an African American governor and alleged the state’s governors have been “insensitive and unresponsive” to the needs of African Americans in Kansas City, which is comprised of nearly 30% Black residents.

An African American woman who lives in Kansas City, Grant said the police board’s demand for city funding violates the Missouri Hancock Amendment, which is a citizens’ initiative that limits state revenues and local taxes.

The police department said it does not comment on pending civil litigation to “ensure fairness for all sides involved.”

Grant, an outspoken critic of Police Chief Rick Smith, was among civil rights leaders who earlier this year asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City police, pointing to “disturbing patterns” of violent policing that targets minorities.

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