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Mayoral Q & A: Treating violent crime in Kansas City as a public health emergency

A blurred police car in the background behind yellow crime scene tape.
A blurred police car in the background behind yellow crime scene tape. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kansas City’s mayoral candidates answered an extensive questionnaire from The Star on key issues. Here are their responses to questions about crime, edited for clarity and length.

As Mayor, what new ideas for combating crime would you bring to office?

Scott Taylor: “We need to treat crime as a public health issue which it is and address the root causes.”

Alissia Canady: “Fully adopting a public health approach to address violence. “

Quinton Lucas: “Reduce or eliminate incarceration for certain non-violent municipal ordinance violations, not unlike what the City voters passed for marijuana offenders in the spring of 2017. This stops early the cycle of incarceration for many who either aren’t career offenders or suffer from behavioral health issues. It also addresses the need to reduce the population of offenders being sent to the Jackson County Jail.

Reallocate funding in KCPD’s administrative bureau and support the deployment of officers and funding in other areas, such as the patrol bureau, that is regularly in our community. That allocation would allow for more neighborhood officers, a key step to building relationships and providing a positive community presence.

“Beyond merely treating violent crime as a public health issue, the City should direct Health Levy funds to behavioral health treatment and outreach to victims, survivors, and communities impacted by homicides and other violent crimes. Many of our shootings are retaliation. Rather than having officers respond to murder scenes, we should support funding of more health workers to treat the issue before further violence.

“A top Kansas City legislative priority needs to be increasing funding to support public defense in our community and resources for prosecutors and officers. The city has lobbyists in Jefferson City each year to push our economic development and other initiatives. If we’re concerned about quality of life for Kansas Citians, this should be a lobbying priority as well.”

Steve Miller:Adopt a Neighborhood. I will urge our corporations and businesses to adopt a neighborhood – beginning with those most afflicted by crime. We have several models to build upon. The late Jim Nutter donated a building to the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Association and helped to fund staff in the neighborhood. It has become a model for other neighborhoods where residents can gather to address all their needs – and, in particular, those related to public safety.

“While leading the Commission that governs MoDOT we promoted an “Adopt a Highway” program which was very successful in helping to leverage limited public resources and gave participating organizations a sense of pride in helping to support a resource valuable to all of us.

“Our corporate and philanthropic community already does this with the “Christmas in October” program where for the last 35 years, business, labor unions, churches and community organizations have come together from all parts of the City to improve over 9000 homes. Our corporate community is very generous. Our business partners understand the importance of stemming violent crime. Even moderate resources in terms of cash and human capital working in cooperation with existing neighborhood groups can help to empower them.”

Scott Wagner: “There is nothing new, but what would be new is if all silos—enforcement, prevention, social services, and prosecution— could work together. I believe it is necessary for all of these to be brought together in a coherent strategy.”

Phil Glynn: “A lack of affordable housing is destabilizing families and neighborhoods. A lack of quality jobs and public transportation is making the problem worse. If we focus on housing, jobs, public transportation, and the timely delivery of basic city services that build neighborhood stability it will greatly help reduce crime. We must invest in community stability and provide adequate funding for officers in our neighborhoods.”

Vincent Lee: Did not respond.

Jolie Justus: “Violent crime in our community is a public health issue and I support evidence-based programs like the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, AIM for Peace and programs that take a public health approach to prevent crime. I support the addition of social workers to our KCPD patrol divisions and an increased focus on community interaction officers. I would also like to see the KC Stat program expanded to the KCPD. This data-driven, public-facing initiative would improve the efficiency and efficacy of the services that KCPD provides.

“I chaired the Violent Crime Task Force that drafted recommendations that are being implemented and already showing results, including the funding and implementation of a Comprehensive Youth Master Plan with the Kansas City Health Department, filling a full-time Violent Crimes Program Coordinator position and working with state legislators to pass a Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. As mayor, I will stay focused on implementing the written recommendations of both the Task Force and the Kansas City Commission on Violent Crime. As a state senator, I worked with stakeholders across the state to craft criminal justice reform legislation that directly impacts our community, including a complete revision of the Missouri Criminal Code and the Justice Reinvestment Act. This legislation has started us down the path of putting the right people in prison and making sure we have opportunities for people when they re-enter our community. As mayor, I am prepared to continue that work.”

Jermaine Reed: “We need real community policing. Right now officers are regularly shifted from community to community as opposed to being allowed to continuously operate in the same communities. The only way to build stronger bonds between officers and residents is for officers to continuously work, and ideally live, in the communities they provide law enforcement services to. “

Henry Klein: “Let’s start with accountability. We have some very challenging, to put it mildly, police response time issues here in Kansas City. Many talk about not even being able to get the 911 dispatch to answer for over 10 minutes or more. This alone creates additional crime issues and doesn’t allow people to feel the needed bond with their police department. And yet, who do you go to when you want something like this fixed.? A state/governor appointed police board.

“This model was designed to fix a problem that existed almost a hundred years ago. It’s time for local control and local accountability of our police force. I believe our police force consists of fantastic people who put their lives on the line every day to help us. But if their resources and directives aren’t in line with our needs, this creates an additional, very serious, if not deadly, problem for our citizens.”

Clay Chastain: Did not respond.

Is the police department adequately funded? If not, how much more does it need and how should those funded be allocated?

Taylor: “While we are addressing longer term issues, we need to make sure the existing KCPD has the resources to do community policing in the short term. This means they have to have time to interact with people in between calls and not forced to go from emergency call to emergency call.”

Canady: “The better question is are they adequately staffed in areas of priority to residents and how do we ensure accountability as taxpayers?”

Lucas: “No. I would fulfill the police chief’s staffing request pursuant to this year’s budget. I have conducted two police ride-alongs on the East Side of Kansas City and, of course, live in the area. We continue to have a challenge with 911 call wait times and officers spend much of their shift time traveling broad distances throughout the City and going from scene-to-scene, rather than being able to spend time building relationships in the community. As before, I would allocate more funds for the patrol bureau. Where possible, I would reduce funds in the administrative bureau.”

Miller: “We need more law enforcement professionals working in our neighborhoods in a variety of capacities – social workers, patrol officers I am uncertain what the right number is but the Police Chief estimates 200 additional officers are required to return to previous staffing levels. Some of this may require additional funding – but some of it may be accomplished through reallocation of resources including certain redundant services between the City and the Department.

“In round numbers, the City considers that each new officer costs about $100,000 when all salary, medical and pension benefits are considered. Not all resources should go to enforcement, some resources must also be allocated to increased social workers , community interaction officers and crisis intervention officers.”

Wagner: “It all depends on what you want it to do. In my opinion the Department needs to reallocate some of its resources to get more uniformed officers on the streets. That may mean placing more civilians in some positions, and integrating some functions with the City. But if we are to get more officers in the Community as so many have asked for it requires an honest look at the Department, its operation, and where money is spent.

“If not, how much more does it need and how should those funds be allocated? Every answer will be right and wrong depending on what your goal is. We have had a number of studies, the last done two years ago, about resources and how the Department spends them. The next Mayor has to work with the other members of the Board of Police Commissioners to figure out what the department has to do.”

Glynn: “I will prioritize working with our public safety departments to ensure adequate funding for law enforcement. I will also focus on increasing investments in housing, jobs and timely delivery of city services to build neighborhood stability. I will always work with our public safety departments to ensure adequate funding for law enforcement. But my focus will be on increasing investments in housing, jobs and timely delivery of city services to build neighborhood stability.”

Lee: Did not respond.

Justus: “That is a question for the Board of Kansas City Police Commissioners.”

Reed: “Seventy-five percent of our funds go to public safety. We have to do all we possibly can to ensure our police department stays adequately funded.”

Klein: “No. But I won’t support simply added more funds. We have to agree on the objectives including much faster police response times. We need to agree on the right response times and then let the police department tell us what they need to get us there. After we have that number then we’ll discuss funding. Safety of our citizens will NOT take a backseat to economics. This has to happen.”

Chastain: Did not respond.

Are there department policies or priorities you think should be revised or discontinued?

Taylor: “We need to continue to monitor the 911 call-take staff levels. We added both officers and call-takers last year.I was a vocal advocate for adding more officers during last year’s budget discussions.”

Canady: “Absolutely.”

Lucas: “I would like to see body cameras issued as standard practice, both for the safety of our officers and the public.”

Miller: “The Department needs to prioritize the continued development of community policing, crisis intervention training; and development of neighborhood relationships.”

Wagner: “I believe we need to have more officers in the field and less in non-enforcement areas. I believe we can look into more City and Department functions, as we have done with IT, to find cost savings that can be rolled back into policing functions.”

Glynn: “As I speak with residents across Kansas City there is a consistent concern that neighborhoods aren’t seeing enough patrols. I am open to exploring with the Chief of Police modification of shift lengths and overlapping the boundaries of patrol divisions to provide a greater presence in neighborhoods. In addition to specific policy and priority changes we must address the economic root causes of crime through housing, jobs, transportation, and timely delivery of basic city services.“

Lee: Did not respond.

Justus: “I am not aware of any programs that should be revised or discontinued at this time, but I look forward to joining the Board of Police Commissioners and becoming an active member of the policy process. On the other hand, I am huge supporter of Chief Smith’s program that has increased the number and role of community interaction officers and the addition of social workers to the patrol divisions and I will always look for policies and priorities that result in this type of return on investment.”

Reed: “The retention and recruitment of minority police officers should be a priority. Kansas City is a very diverse city and so our police force should reflect our diversity.”

Klein: “Please see my response above.”

Chastain: Did not respond.

Do you think bringing the department under local control would make a difference in reducing crime?

Taylor: “I think we can have another discussion of local control, but I think it is more important to focus on collaboration with the police department, which I have done.”

Canady: “I believe the best first step in local accountability of the police budget and staffing & resource allocation. This creates trust and transparency in KCPD’s willingness to be responsive to residents’ concerns.”

Lucas: “No. The St. Louis example shows local control is no panacea in reducing violent crime. While I generally support us moving to local control (with and only with the cooperation of our police officers), I do not believe we should see it as a cure-all to violent crime in our community.”

Miller: “It may. This is why I have said that we should renew our discussion from 7 years ago regarding changing the governance of our Police Department. I am not, however, prepared to push for a change – just for the sake of change - nor without public discussion. Because to do so, will require the expenditure of significant political capital and energy in Jefferson City as well as thoughtful implementation at home. But we should have a serious conversation and make a decision regarding whether making a change will affect outcomes.”

Wagner: “Not on day one, but it would provide an opportunity to provide better definitions of success and better planning to provide those goals. But local control boils down to trust between members of the department and City government. I believe we need to integrate operations, show their success, and only then look at local control.”

Glynn: “No.”

Lee: Did not respond.

Justus: “I favor a police department that is governed by a police board, and I am open to exploring how that board is appointed. The devil is always in the details, and I am willing to listen to all sides of an issue. Ultimately, I am open to alternative governance options if all stakeholders have input in the process, but I do not believe that changing the governance would make a difference in reducing crime.”

Reed: “We’re the only city in the country without local control. While local control is important, it is just as important that our law enforcement leaders listen to and engage with community groups and other elected leaders on how best to keep our communities safe. If people don’t feel listened to, and if law enforcement is non-responsive, then local control will an issue the citizens will decide on.”

Klein: “A huge difference. There is going to come a day when each and everyone of us quite possibly going to need the immediate help of our police force. And we have to have them be accountable for delivering this. It starts, but only starts, with not just adequate but outstanding response times.”

Chastain: Did not respond.

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