Missouri lawmakers repeal KC police residency, empower prosecutors in innocence cases

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Missouri lawmakers on Thursday struck down a rule that Kansas City police officers live in the city, approving a criminal justice overhaul that also bans officers from using chokeholds.

The General Assembly’s passage of the measure represents a victory for Kansas City police officers who have unsuccessfully pushed to lift the residency requirement in the past, even as the legislature removed similar rules for St. Louis.

But it marks a blow for Mayor Quinton Lucas and other civic leaders who had urged lawmakers to keep the rule in place. They argued requiring the department’s more than 1,300 officers to live in the city they patrol fosters better relationships with residents.

In an interview with The Star, Lucas predicted the city council will evaluate “any number of things” in the bill’s wake, including the use of take-home cars for officers.

“The bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In Kansas City, for example, the police already have banned chokeholds and most major jurisdictions in the state of Missouri already have that ban,” Lucas said.

The mayor, calling the repeal of the residency rule “unfortunate,” said the change has nothing to do with making Kansas City or Missouri safer.

“It is a bill, I think, based on animosity to Kansas City and it’s the sort of bill that’s going to lead to more negative repercussions,” Lucas said.

The Senate passed the measure 31-2 on Wednesday. The House followed in a 140-4 vote Thursday.

Innocence cases

The residency provision is part of a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms.

The bill would ban police chokeholds, criminalize police officers having sex with detainees, require departments to look into officers’ history with other agencies before hiring them and create a statewide program to require officers receive mental health “check-ins” after dealing with traumatic incidents.

Most of those measures were sponsored by Sen. Brian Williams, a St. Louis County Democrat who has called the provisions the biggest statewide step toward police reform since a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown more than six years ago.

Other measures added include criminal justice reforms for minors charged with crimes, to push counties to implement a Missouri law that keeps 17-year-olds in juvenile courts and detention facilities, rather than adult ones.

The bill also removes a requirement that the Missouri attorney general live in Jefferson City. In 2018, then-Attorney General Josh Hawley faced accusations from Claire McCaskill, then a Democratic U.S. senator, and others that he was flouting the requirement.

And the measure would give local prosecutors a way to ask judges to toss convictions in innocence cases. It would allow Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to move to free Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man serving life for 1978 murders that Baker on Monday said he did not commit.

“Frankly, from being in the business for years and years, this is probably the best, comprehensive justice reform and improvements I’ve ever seen,” said Rep. David Evans, a West Plains Republican who was a judge for 18 years before his election in 2018.

Sen. Barbara Washington, a Kansas City Democrat, said while she disagreed with removing the residency rule, the rest of the bill was “good for all of Missouri.”

“My community is very, very adamant about police residency,” she said. “For that reason I can’t vote yes for what has turned into a really, really good criminal justice bill.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican, said lifting the residency requirement would help the department recruit officers at a time when interest in joining the force is down. Most police officers in Kansas City, he said, already do not live in the high-crime areas they patrol.

“I believe the reason that is, is because we’ve seen a lot of increased civil unrest and those metropolitan police departments around the country are having difficulty recruiting officers because it’s such a tough job,” he said.

Resident rules ‘antiquated’

The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who last year signed a bill pausing a residency rule for St. Louis officers. Parson hasn’t said whether he will sign it, but before passing the measure lawmakers removed a provision on the General Assembly’s subpoena power he had said would prompt a veto.

Rep. Justin Hill, a Lake St. Louis Republican who helped negotiate the final version of the package, said Parson will “likely sign this into law.”

The push to lift the requirement comes as cities across the country examine policing practices and policies following a string of killings of Black people by officers, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer, which set off a wave of protests.

Kansas City has also been grappling with a surge in homicides that led to a record 182 in 2020. And the police department, which is governed by a board appointed by the governor, has dealt with its own controversies, including most recently a racist challenge coin that prompted an apology from Chief Rick Smith.

The bill would allow Kansas City officers to live anywhere within 30 miles of city limits -- but not across the state line in Kansas, a concession won by Kansas City Democrats in the Senate.

The Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, which supported lifting the residency requirement, declined to comment.

Sgt. Brad Lemon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99, has said in the past that some officers rent trailers to skirt the requirement. Lemon told lawmakers in January the resident rules are “antiquated” and called for their repeal.

“Our members love Kansas City and the Kansas City community,” Lemon said during a hearing. “But because they have lives and families with diverse needs and desires that go beyond just them individually, they have other needs.”

KCPD ‘hardball’

In the lead-up to the bill’s passage, Kansas City leaders expressed dismay, however.

Lucas said the local conversation around the police department includes community policing and increasing investments in social worker programs and victim advocacy.

“These are the things that we want to work on, not tearing us apart even more,” Lucas said. “We ask, we beg, because we do not have any type of local control, so again we beg that our legislature think about what’s being heard in Kansas City.”

Vernon Howard, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, a civil rights organization, said the legislation does not help improve trust between minority communities in Kansas City and its police department or promote transparency or accountability.

Howard said KCPD “continues to hardball us” in efforts by civil rights advocacy groups to gain transparency and accountability from the police.

“One of the things that we have encountered here the Kansas City is an apartheid-like police system and enforcement system that does not have community voice, community control and information necessary for the community to have in order to do critical analysis and evaluation of the police department, its law enforcement policies, procedures, and its administrative structure,” Howard said.

The bill was nearly derailed this week when lawmakers tried to include provisions that would have strengthened the General Assembly’s power to subpoena witnesses. A proposal championed by Evans would have stopped witnesses from refusing to testify by asserting their right against self-incrimination. In exchange, the testimony couldn’t be used against them in court.

On Tuesday, Parson threatened to veto any bill that included the subpoena language, which he called a power grab. House Republicans said without it, the bill was a “non-starter,” but Williams said he didn’t want to see bipartisan police reform scuttled over “one issue or past political qualms.”

By Wednesday morning, legislative negotiators had agreed to remove the provisions and avoid a showdown with the governor’s office.

Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican, said part of him wanted to send the bill to Parson’s desk with the subpoena change to see what the governor would do. He said the legislature is a co-equal branch of government and called for action on the proposal next year.

“We do have some unfinished business for next year, to be sure,” Onder said.