Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith said Tuesday that the department would continue to pursue all drug crimes, even those consider for low-level arrests.
The decision comes after Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker in July urged Kansas City police to stop sending her office hundreds of low-level drug crimes and instead shift their focus to pursuing violent crimes.
Baker previously told Smith that her office has created more narrow guidelines for drug cases, and prosecutors would charge drug crimes only when the defendant poses a violent threat to the public.
However, Smith said Tuesday making such adjustments would be difficult to implement across the department.
“We talked with the command staff and we agree that it would be too hard to train our officers to do two types of policing in two different counties,” Smith told police commissioners during the police board’s monthly meeting. “We believe it would be all kinds of conflict and potential legal ramifications.”
The department refers more than 1,400 felony drug cases to Jackson County prosecutors each year.
An analysis by Baker’s office showed that while Black people make up 39% of the population, they accounted for 54% of drug suspects referred for charges by the police department from 2017 to September 2020 in Jackson County.
White residents, on the other hand, were referred for charges in 42% of drug cases, while making up 48% of the population.
The racial disparity was even greater in “buy bust” cases, in which undercover detectives buy drugs before a dealer is arrested.
Prosecutors concluded that in 2019, about 25% of drug cases within four years had a nexus to violence, when considering factors such as gun crimes or physical violence. That meant that 75% had “no discernible connection” to violence, Baker said at the time.
Most drug possession cases referred for charges occurred south of Independence Avenue and east of Troost Avenue, their review found. The majority of those cases begin with a traffic violation or a minor crime.
The police department’s current drug enforcement strategy made communities less safe and less willing to cooperate with authorities because of a lack of trust. Many drug possession cases often begin with a traffic violation or a minor crime, Baker had previously said.
On Tuesday, Baker’s office declined to comment about the department’s decision.
Prosecutors in Clay and Platte counties have urged the police department not to make any changes in how they pursued drug crimes.
Several police commissioners said Tuesday they supported the action.
“It is my understanding that our job is to enforce the laws, not make them, not change them,” said Cathy Dean, the police board’s vice president. “While some people may think that we can choose which laws to enforce or not, we don’t. I think that our department needs to enforce the laws that we’ve been assigned to enforce.
“We can’t give our officers a requirement to enforce laws in Jackson County and not do it in Clay and Platte or where ever. Our department is to enforce the laws in the state of Missouri,” Dean said.
Mayor Quinton Lucas said Baker’s contention was not to not pursue drug cases, but place a greater emphasis on those cases that are connected to violent crime.
Smith said the department’s major focus is to pursue violent crimes.
“But if you think we’re going out, and officers on a daily basis are going out and looking for you know, marijuana or other things that low level offenses, that’s not what’s going on,” he said. “Officers coming across things as they do the business but that is not their focus of their daily activity.”