Politics & Policy

‘Reimagining’ Policing Won’t Stop Kansas City’s Murder Wave

Kansas City, Mo. (alcfeoh21/Getty Images)
The city’s decision to deemphasize traditional police work amid a record-breaking violent-crime surge is likely to backfire.

Last week, Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas proposed, and the City Council promptly passed, an overhaul of the city police department’s budget, thereby igniting an acrimonious debate. The president of the city’s police union called the move “defunding.” Republican state representative Josh Hurlbert labeled the move “radical” and called for a special session to undo it. For his part, Lucas has claimed that it does not defund the KCPD, but is instead meant to increase “accountability” and combat a historic surge in murders.

The truth is somewhere in between. Though the overhaul gives the KCPD more funding, the additional money is reserved for “community engagement” and “crime prevention,” not for putting more cops on the street. There is merit to that approach, but it’s poorly matched to the acute crisis of a city that last year surpassed its record for homicides. Though Kansas City’s leadership isn’t precisely defunding its police force, then, it does appear set to follow the lead of the nationwide movement to “reimagine” policing — which will inevitably worsen its public-safety crisis.

The root of the debate comes down to the peculiar structure of the KCPD. Under law, Kansas City’s government approves the department’s budget, but actual oversight authority rests with a board appointed by the governor of Missouri. That means that the city’s control over how the KCPD operates comes primarily from budget negotiations.

The ordinances passed last week are an effort to exercise that leverage.

The first ordinance slashes $42 million from the KCPD’s budget, reducing its funding from about a quarter of city funds to 20 percent — the minimum allowed under state law, and the level demanded by K.C. activist organizations. Those cuts fall across the board, but the largest will be borne by the KCPD’s risk-management section ($8.8 million) and the department’s Metro ($8.2 million), Central ($9.7 million), and East ($4 million) Patrol Divisions.

The second ordinance authorizes the city manager to negotiate with the Board of Governors toward the goal of rerouting the $42 million cut from the budget into a new “Community Services and Prevention Fund” controlled by the KCPD. The catch is that the money can only be spent on “community engagement, outreach, prevention, intervention, and other public services” meant to reduce crime. Under the proposed deal, KCPD would also get $3 million more for staffing these services, partially offsetting a COVID-related hiring freeze that Chief Richard Smith claims has led to the department’s lowest staffing levels since the early 1990s.

There is little detail yet as to what specific initiatives will get dollars from the new KCPD-controlled fund. But given ordinance supporters’ rhetoric and the moment we are in, they are likely to draw from the playbook of “alternatives” widely touted by the “defund the police” movement, with more focus on mental-health treatment, social work, and community outreach, and less on putting cops on the beat.

There’s nothing wrong with alternative approaches in the abstract — to varying extents, they can be useful complements to traditional police work. In fact, like most other major cities, Kansas City already uses many of them. It has a “violence interruption” program modeled after Chicago’s CeaseFire program. The KCPD runs a dedicated Crisis Intervention Team, which works with community partners to deal with mental-health crises in a non-violent manner and referred over 2,000 contacts to social-service workers in 2020 alone.

But even in the best of times, these complementary approaches have limited efficacy compared to traditional policing. And Kansas City is not facing the best of times: It is in the middle of a crisis that won’t be helped by deemphasizing routine police work.

Like almost every other city in America, Kansas City has experienced a surge in homicides and violent crime. The KCPD counted a record 176 murders in 2020, up 16 percent from 2019. 2021 is currently on pace to beat all but 2020. Official KCPD statistics also show an increase in aggravated assaults (up 21 percent from 2019 to 2020), likely reflecting a surge in shootings.

These numbers do not capture the tragic realities of a violent-crime surge. Not only does such a surge claim innocent lives — including kids such as Tyron Payton, shot and killed at just one year old — but it also leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. The city’s wealthier residents flee to the suburbs, while the poorer ones are forced to stay inside. Businesses shutter and commerce stops. Without the basic guarantee of public safety, the city withers.

While deemphasizing traditional police work might reduce crime in the long run — although the evidence to support this proposition is low-quality and mixed at best — the people of Kansas City need solutions now. And there is simply no better tool available for fighting violent crime than the police.

Decades of research link more cops to less crime. Robust research estimates that for every ten cops added to a police force, one murder will be prevented. Unlike elaborate “preventative” approaches — which rely on every step of a complicated therapeutic or social intervention going right — policing works by reducing opportunities to commit crime and increasing the probability that a given offender will be caught. Increasing the level of policing is simply the best way to combat a surge in violence like Kansas City’s.

But lamentably, the city is going in the opposite direction. Even if it is not technically “defunding” its police department, the shift in funding emphasis from guaranteed solutions to tenuous ones will likely do little to alleviate the city’s murder problem. It may even exacerbate it, as reductions in funding and public hostility drive KCPD officers to join thousands of others in quitting their jobs or fleeing to another, friendlier department.

On Sunday, the Kansas City Star defended the reforms’ backers from right-wing criticism, but had some words of caution for them: “Mayor Lucas, and the eight council members who joined him, are now on the hook for the city’s murder crisis in a way that they weren’t before.”

In other words, they should be careful what they wish for.

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