On policing, race and city resources, Kansas City’s North-South divide re-surfaces

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Brandon Dunaway stood at a lectern in the packed Northland meeting room and offered his solution to a problem that brought several hundred people out on a rainy night late last month.

The problem was Mayor Quinton Lucas and his decision to give Northland representatives on the Kansas City Council only an eleventh-hour notice of his plan to require the state-controlled Police Department to negotiate how it spends a portion of the money it gets from City Hall.

“There’s only one solution,” Dunaway said.

“Vote him out,” someone shouted.

“No, let him stay,” Dunaway replied. “We elect our own government and we start our own city and we separate from Kansas City.”

His idea elicited one of the louder applause lines from the standing room-only town hall at Northland Neighborhoods Inc., a community development non-profit on Chouteau Trafficway. The meeting was arranged by the four Northland council members — Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Dan Fowler and Kevin O’Neill. Each voted against Lucas’ proposal, which was approved on May 20 by the nine-vote council supermajority required to pass measures just hours after introduction.

Tim Johnston, sporting a New York Police Department hat, summed up the apparent feelings of many in the crowd.

“I know we all feel shorted here in the Northland and the reality is, it is,” Johnston said. “And now they are trying to short…our own people we elected. So give them hell.”

The sentiments expressed by Dunaway and Johnston, while perhaps overheated, reflect longstanding tensions between the Northland — the largely suburban areas of Clay and Platte counties — and the more liberal-leaning, urban and diverse portion of Kansas City south of the Missouri River.

The fight over the police funding plan, now the focus of a lawsuit filed last week by the Board of Kansas City Police Commissioners, is the latest flashpoint, playing out against a backdrop of suspicion and resentment in the Northland — over public safety, city resources, race and political influence.

“This mayor has divided the city into North and South,” Loar said. “And, you know, shame on him.”

It seems to us up in the Northland that we are the forgotten group,” said 1st District at-large council member Kevin O’Neill. “It’s very difficult to get things passed up here. And I think (the May 20 vote) was a kind of a referendum on, you know, we’re going to do what we want, and you’re only four votes so we really don’t need you. And I think that’s a problem in itself when we represent close to 42 percent of that population.”

Typically, City Hall sets KCPD’s budget. But it’s the police board, whose members are appointed by the Missouri governor, that manages KCPD’s affairs. The Lucas plan sets aside about 18% of the $239 million that Kansas City appropriates for KCPD’s budget, roughly $42.3 million. Under its provisions, City Manager Brian Platt and the board would negotiate a contract for how the money will be spent.

Lucas said the measure is aimed at increasing accountability for how KCPD spends taxpayer resources. It is also, he has said, about taking different approaches to crime in Kansas City, with more money for prevention strategies, conflict resolution and mental health interventions. There are few specifics yet — that’s what the negotiations are supposed to determine — but Lucas hopes for a departure from the status quo.

Critics have described it as a way to take money from, or “defund” the police. The concept, with roots in the Black Lives Matter movement, has been appropriated by opponents to describe virtually any attempt to reimagine or reform how taxpayer resources are devoted to policing.

Race looms over many disputes at City Hall, whether it’s policing, land use, allocation of resources or even the hiring of top city personnel. For example, the council’s approval of Platt as the new city manager last October was also by a 9-4 vote. Only this time, it was the four Black council members who opposed Platt, questioning the depth of his experience: Melissa Robinson, Brandon Ellington, Ryana Parks-Shaw and Lee Barnes, Jr.

Some Northland council members expressed concern that the 9-to-4 north-south split on police spending could manifest itself again on other significant issues, such as the re-drawing of city council boundaries that follows the census. And there are questions of trust after schism over KCPD funding.

Can I trust them? I don’t know. We’ll see what their attitude is going forward. See who reaches out to me and says, ‘Hey, let’s work together,’” Fowler said. “So far nobody has.”

Katheryn Shields, who represents the city’s 4th District (largely downtown, Brookside and a bit of the Northland) has little patience for such views.

Once again we have become a nation of victims. Everybody’s got to be a victim, the police are a victim, our colleagues north of the river are victims,” Shields said. “And when you view the world through that, it does not allow for good interactions with other people. I don’t think it puts you in a position where you make good decisions.”

‘A narrative about policing’

White residents’ concerns about diversity and deep community ties to law enforcement are among the layers to the police funding issue north of the river.

One woman who spoke at the town hall, who described herself as a “product of the Northland,” said she’s “seen a lot” in the years she’s lived there.

“We grew up under blue suburban skies. Yes, it was lily white,” she said. “But my neighborhood isn’t lily white anymore.”

While the Northland is still predominantly white, racial diversity is increasing. The North Kansas City School District, which covers parts of Kansas City north of the Missouri River, has seen enrollment of most racial minorities increase in the last several years. White enrollment is dropping.

Madison Hays, who lives in a working class neighborhood near Winnwood Elementary School, said her family loved the police, many of whom live in the Northland.

Most of the officers are from the North and then they go police black and brown people south of the river,” Hays said. “And it’s very easy for police and for the rest of the Northland to think of it as a whole separate city.”

Hays believes that dynamic colors how police are commonly viewed in the wealthier enclaves of the Northland, like the one where she grew up at the northernmost stretches of the city limits.

I think part of it from the wealthier members of the Northland is they have never experienced the police being a bad guy to them. Whereas poor and working class people, black and brown people, they have experienced that almost exclusively whenever they deal with police, it’s always in a negative way for many of them,” said Hays, who attended the Northland town hall.

“And I think it’s hard to imagine that when you’re wealthier and white your uncle or your brother or whatever is part of this system that is hurting people.”

Two Northland council members have family connections to KCPD. Loar’s son is a KCPD sergeant, Hall’s husband is a former officer.

Part of the Northland’s negative reaction to the Lucas plan is fueled by anxiety about existing police service. Many at the town hall said there are too few police patrols.

When it comes to police and fire protection because it’s so, so large, response times are horrible,” Fowler said. “So, we want the police to come and the fire to come when we’ve got a problem. But it takes them forever to get there.”

And while O’Neill acknowledges that the Northland doesn’t have much violent crime, he said other problems are increasing at an alarming rate.

“I mean property crime,” he said. “There’s tons of it and it’s getting worse because, I think at the end of the day criminals go where policing doesn’t exist.”

For many communities south of the river, dissatisfaction with police service is an entirely different issue.

Violent crime occurs disproportionately south of the Missouri River, particularly on Kansas City’s East Side. KCPD Chief Rick Smith, in an affidavit filed as an exhibit in the police board lawsuit, notes that the department’s Central, East and Metro patrol areas are “far and away the most impacted by crime in Kansas City, accounting in 2020 for 71.1% of the calls for services, 74.6% of violent crime and 67.1% of the property crimes.”

Council member Robinson, whose 3rd District covers much of the East Side, said KCPD isn’t meeting expectations of her constituents.

“When I talk to my constituents, they certainly do not want any defunding of the police, by and large,” Robinson said. “They want to be able to depend on if they call 911 that the police will show up. A lot of residents feel that the response times are an issue if they need policing. They need a response to a call.”

Eric Bunch, a 4th District council member, said race is always a factor in the discussion of policing in Black communities.

“I think that is something that white folks can’t understand,” Bunch said. “Especially white folks who don’t live in the neighborhoods who are facing the most violent crime.”

Lucas, who grew up on the East Side and lived near 18th & Vine until recently, said he has grave concerns with the way Black communities are described in the context of crime. When he hears neighborhoods beset by crime described with adjectives like “war zone,” particularly by state lawmakers who don’t live in those areas, it’s troubling to the first-term mayor.

I think those of us who are in the communities most impacted by violent crime every day, largely within the Black community in Kansas City, are not scared by a state rep who says Kansas City now is in crisis,” Lucas said. “Because, for our communities, Kansas City has long been in crisis.”

Jenay Manley, a Black woman who lives in the Northland, disputed that the town hall meeting and the crowd that attended it was representative of the broader communities north of the Missouri River. She noted that some state lawmakers in attendance and who have spoken derisively about Lucas’ police funding proposal don’t live in Kansas City.

So to me, the Northland council members, encouraging state representatives outside of the city limits of Kansas City speak on their behalf instead of representatives like (Democratic) Senator Lauren Arthur who lives in the Northland, it all seems very intentional,” Manley said. “It’s not for the residents. It’s for them to push a narrative about policing.”

‘Lack of partnership’

The nine-vote supermajority Lucas assembled for same-day passage of his budget plan reflects a long-simmering frustration over state governance of the KCPD.

Concern about corruption in Kansas City politics in the 1930s led Missouri to assume control of the department. It is governed by the Board of Kansas City Police Commissioners, a five-member board with four members appointed by the Missouri governor.

Yet City Hall, until last week, has been reluctant to push KCPD for changes.

In 2001, a report by the Kansas City Auditor suggested consolidating several departments at City Hall and KCPD that perform similar functions, including payroll, information systems, purchasing and building maintenance as a way to save money and operate more efficiently.

It never happened. The report noted that some of the proposed areas for consolidation, like payroll and purchasing, were “not presently feasible due to high resistance, especially by the Police Department, and a limited potential for savings.”

Under Mayor Sly James, the city and KCPD agreed to bring in an outside consultant to study police staffing practices in the 1,250-officer department. Matrix Consulting Group made a series of recommendations, including — again — consolidation of KCPD’s information technology with City Hall. It also suggested converting some administrative positions held by sworn officers to civilian jobs, freeing them up for patrol, and ending two-officer patrol cars in most circumstances.

“And not one of those has recommendations have been implemented,” Council member Shields said, adding that if the Kansas City manager negotiates with the KCPD on how to spend some of the money it gets from City Hall, “I would probably go with that list of 200 recommendations, pick our three or four on the top, maybe five, and say why don’t we start working toward these?”

Other council members say they have a difficult time getting information out of the police.

“We can’t get information, the chief doesn’t show up,” said Andrea Bough, a member from the 6th District, which covers southwest Kansas City. “They come, they won’t answer questions, and we just want to be able to have a conversation about how the money is spent.”

‘Fight like hell’

Just as Northland council members say they don’t have enough police, they also contend their constituents are shorted on other city resources and priorities.

When it comes to economic growth, we have to fight like hell to get anything through the council,” Loar said.

She said influential commissions and council committees, whose leaders the mayor appoints, lack Northland representation.

One of her examples was the City Plan Commission, which makes recommendations to the city council on land use issues, has only one member who lives in the Northland. She added that city council committees, whose chairs exert out-sized influence over the movement and passage of ordinances, are not led by Northland council members.

The one exception is the Special Committee on Housing Policy, which is chaired by Fowler but meets infrequently compared to other council panels. Loar used to head the Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee, but Lucas demoted her to vice chair after several council members took issue with her treatment of Robinson, a Black council member, during a meeting.

Northlanders also complain that when voters agreed to a 2018 property tax increase to pay for $800 million in general obligation bonds (GO bonds) for street maintenance, flood control and other improvements, most of the projects were south of the river.

Most are indeed south of the river, which takes in the oldest parts of Kansas City.

Shields said the complaints ring hollow.

“I think everything they’ve asked for, they’ve gotten,” Shields said, adding that GO bond money paid for much of the new animal shelter at Swope Park, a big priority of Loar’s. “Certainly Loar has.”

Shields added that council districts south of the river often contribute portions of their share of Public Improvement Advisory Committee (PIAC) dollars — proceeds from a capital improvement sales tax divvied up to each council district to spend on projects — to Northland priorities.

She added that the city council agreed to fund a new soccer complex in the Northland, a proposal that was passed as the city grappled with what appeared to be devastating economic effects from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Certainly nobody else is getting the $36 million soccer park, built in an area, by the way, where the city put in $45 million worth of water and sewer lines for Twin Creeks,” Shields said, referring to a new residential subdivision in the Northland. “I mean, hello? But like all victims, anything they get, that’s what they’re supposed to get. And anything that happens that they don’t like, then that they’re being discriminated against, they’re being treated unfairly.”

Lucas, now the subject of a third recall effort based in the Northland — the first two failed easily — also rejected the notion that the Northland gets shortchanged. He also expressed little concern about long-term political concequences in the Northland. He outperformed most expectations there in his 2019 contest against Jolie Justus for mayor. He predicted he would do well again up north in a re-election effort.

He also points to the difference in how East Side council members reacted when they were on the losing end of the vote to hire City Manager Platt.

When all the East Siders voted against the city manager, I respect the fact that, although it was obvious that no Black members besides myself voted for him and nobody on the East Side besides myself voted for him,” Lucas said. “But what they did not do (was) a rally saying that the city hates them….They worked with the city manager. What you’re seeing here now is a very different reaction where I guess losing a vote is now a slap in the face.”

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