Roughly half a dozen voters complete ballots at polling stations inside a white room.
Kansas City voters fill out their ballots on Nov. 8 at Roanoke Community Center. Amendment 4 appeared on all Missouri ballots. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

The Kansas City Police Department will see a budget increase in spite of Kansas City voters’ wishes, following a statewide vote on Constitutional Amendment 4 on Nov. 8.

Within the Kansas City Election Board’s jurisdiction — the part of Kansas City located in Jackson County — 61% of voters opposed the amendment, with all precincts reporting. Voters in Clay and Platte counties, which include roughly one third of Kansas City’s population, supported the amendment, with 65% voting yes in both counties, based on an incomplete tally at 10 a.m. on Nov. 9. 

Outside of Kansas City, 63% of voters supported Amendment 4, according to the incomplete tally at 10 a.m. on Nov. 9, ensuring its passage. 

With the success of the constitutional amendment, Kansas City will be required to give 25% of its revenue to its police department. Many city officials, including Mayor Quinton Lucas and 3rd District City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, had vocally opposed the amendment.

On election night, Lucas said he was expecting the amendment to pass, but he sees the opposition in Kansas City as an opportunity to campaign for local control.

Lucas said he hopes the election will be a wake-up call for Kansas City residents who were previously unaware that the city does not have control over its own police department. It is controlled by the Board of Police Commissioners, with members selected by the governor and approved by the state legislature.

“A hell of a lot of Missourians were saying, ‘Wait, this doesn’t make sense,’” Lucas told The Beacon. “Ultimately, this will be the day where we mark that people actually figured out that, first, there even is state control of our police, and second, there’s something we should do about it.”

Missouri passed Amendment 4 by a large margin

Earlier this year, the Missouri legislature passed a bill drafted by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Parkville, that raises the minimum funding for the police department from 20% to 25% of the city’s revenue. For the current year, the minimum funding would increase from $154 million to $193 million. 

However, because the increase is an unfunded mandate — meaning the state is telling Kansas City to do something without providing the funds to pay for it — this new law requires that voters approve a constitutional amendment before it can be enforced.

With the constitutional amendment now approved by voters, this law can go into effect.

The argument for the amendment was that it would prevent Kansas City from “defunding” its police department. But Mayor Quinton Lucas has said he has no intention of reducing the police budget, although he wants the city’s elected officials to have more say in how some of the funds are spent. 

The problem, he told The Beacon in September, is that the Board of Police Commissioners has unilateral power to make decisions about the budget without city approval.

Last year, Lucas said, he wanted $400,000 to be spent on officer recruitment. But the police department instead spent the money on a spare helicopter engine. 

It is unclear how the department will use its budget increase. In the past, the majority of the police department’s $191 million general fund — roughly 82% — has gone to employee compensation and benefits. 

The department also spends at least $4.8 million on legal claims every year, and Lucas said KCPD has left anywhere from $5.4 million to $13.5 million of its budget unspent every year since at least 2018, according to a police budget audit.

Opposition to state control dates back more than 50 years

Criminal justice reform advocates have long criticized the current system that places Kansas City’s police department under control of a state-appointed board. Lucas refers to the system as “colonial” — a sentiment shared by Gwen Grant, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

“State control, I view it as 21st century colonialism,” Grant said at a town hall on Nov. 3 to garner votes in opposition to Amendment 4. “We’re being dominated by the Missouri General Assembly and the governor, who has the power to appoint a board of commissioners that is not accountable to the people. It is a form of taxation without representation.”

The movement to regain local control of the police department from the state dates back decades. 

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, riots in Kansas City resulted in the deaths of six Black men, five of whom were killed by police.

Shortly afterward, a report issued by a city commission recommended that the state give Kansas City local control of its police department.

“That was in 1968,” Robinson said during the town hall. “The vast majority of us (local representatives) believe in making sure that you have the right to unelect people who are not doing the things that you want done with your local taxpayer dollars. And so we believe in local control of KCPD.”

Activists pursuing local control through courts

Grant said there are three ways to secure local control of KCPD.

The first is if the Missouri legislature, which is currently run by a Republican supermajority, passes a law that changes the governance structure of KCPD. “That’s a nonstarter. It’s not going to happen,” Grant said.

The second option is through a petition for a statewide vote. That is the route St. Louis used to gain local control in 2012.

But such a campaign would be costly — Grant estimated around $5 million — and would need support from a generous donor.

That leaves one final option — the one that Grant is pursuing — through the courts.

She filed a lawsuit against the Board of Police Commissioners in September 2021. According to this lawsuit, the current system of state control violates the state’s Hancock Amendment, which limits the ability of state and local governments to tax and spend money without a public vote. 

Grant’s lawsuit also contends that state governance of the police department deprives Black Kansas Citians of their right to local control of the force. Litigation could begin as soon as January 2023.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....