Government & Politics

Kansas City joins national trend in raising private money for police

A local foundation aims to help police in Kansas City fulfill certain needs. Here is Kansas City Police Headquarters downtown.
A local foundation aims to help police in Kansas City fulfill certain needs. Here is Kansas City Police Headquarters downtown. The Kansas City Star

For more than 40 years, New York City’s police foundation has raised private dollars to buy everything from horses to bulletproof vests to crime analysis technology.

Atlanta’s police foundation, created in 2003, raises several million dollars annually to assist police, especially with a camera surveillance network.

And the St. Louis police foundation, begun in 2007, now provides more than a half-million dollars per year for such things as ATVs and even dogs.

In fact, most big cities view police foundations as vital to providing money for the wish lists that so many departments can’t fund with strapped city budgets.

Finally, after years of research and organizing, Kansas City is joining the trend.

“We’re starting to roll,” said Cy Ritter, who was hired in March as the Kansas City police foundation’s executive director, a few years after retiring as a Kansas City deputy police chief.

Ritter has just launched the foundation’s first two major initiatives: a program to track and find missing people with autism or dementia, and another to start a major surveillance camera program.

“The city is very good to Police and Fire, but there’s just not enough dollars,” Ritter said, adding that the foundation was formed to supplement public tax money that pays for police salaries, cars, uniforms and other essentials. The foundation’s focus, like that in many cities, will be training and new technologies.

Betsey Solberg, chairwoman of the foundation’s 14-member board, acknowledges that it’s taken several years for the organization to get up and running — and that Kansas City trails other cities that did this years ago.

“We are behind, but we are getting caught up,” said Solberg, adding that the foundation is critically needed. Kansas City’s violent crime rate, while improving in recent months, still ranks as one of the worst in the country.

“If you look at how serious our crime is,” she said, “we’ve got to do something.”

The idea first surfaced in 2006 when then-Police Chief Jim Corwin started hearing at national police chief gatherings about successful foundations helping other cities dramatically reduce their crime rates.

The department looked at models like New York City and Atlanta, and the foundation got its nonprofit status in late 2009. Solberg, a longtime civic leader, says it took awhile for the board to get its arms around what its mission should be and to write policies and by-laws.

Board members contributed money to hire Ritter, who has helped raise more than $125,000 for the initial two programs, which are just getting underway. Major donors so far include the Hall Family, Hallmark and H&R Block foundations.

The foundation’s first major fundraiser will be a Feb. 10 dinner at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown with keynote speaker John Walsh, host of the long-running “America’s Most Wanted.”

Police foundations now are so common that an umbrella group is forming so they can share information and ideas.

That umbrella group’s executive director is Pam Delaney, who ran New York City’s police foundation from 1983 to 2009. She now counts about 180 police foundations around the country.

“It should never be viewed as a substitute for the city budget,” Delaney said. “Lots of times city council people and other political people will look at it and say, ‘They can raise $1 million,’ and then lop that off the city budget. That’s not the intent.”

Ritter and Solberg say their efforts won’t let Kansas City off the hook from funding the basic police budget, which this year runs $228 million.

Even before Ritter started his job, the foundation’s board had consulted with the Atlanta foundation, which is credited with helping that city reduce its crime rate by about 25 percent in recent years.

One of Atlanta’s key initiatives, which Kansas City hopes eventually to replicate, is a five-year plan to bring thousands of surveillance cameras — businesses, schools, public and transit cameras — into one big network, managed by smart software and monitored by police.

The Atlanta foundation has received more than $1 million in donations to build and equip a video integration command center and technology innovation lab, according to executive director Dave Wilkinson. These are the kinds of things that private donations could help Kansas City do as well, although Kansas City’s foundation has nowhere near that level of money yet.

Ritter says Kansas City chose to sponsor two programs that the department requested for years but never got.

The first is called Care Trak, intended to get a big bang for not a lot of bucks. Raphael Hotel Group President Kevin Pistilli, who joined the police foundation board early this year, helped raise the $10,000 quickly to get it going.

Families with an autistic child or an adult with dementia can purchase a $300 bracelet, fixed with a battery that can be tracked through radio telemetry. The foundation money allowed police to purchase tracking units and provide training.

Capt. Darren Ivey says that as a patrol captain over two years, he responded to as many as 20 calls on missing children or seniors. Some searches took hours and used massive police resources, while Care Trak’s performance in other cities shows it can provide quick and successful results.

For more information, people can contact Ivey at darren.ivey@kcpd.org.

Ritter then turned his attention to the first phase of a camera surveillance program similar to Atlanta’s and those in other cities.

The City Council this month agreed to match $125,000 that the foundation has raised, creating a fund of $250,000 to buy 20 mobile cameras plus supporting equipment.

The department has only eight mobile surveillance cameras but could use many more to help prevent and solve crimes, Ritter said.

Since police began using borrowed cameras several years ago to monitor crowds at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for example, incidents of fights and shootings have been eliminated, he said.

In future phases, the department plans to work with schools, businesses and neighborhoods to integrate cameras into a broader police network. The full build-out could cost millions of dollars, but Ritter said that if the city matches private funds, it could be accomplished in four to five years.

City Manager Troy Schulte was so enthusiastic that he said the city will find the public money.

“If they can raise it, we’ll match it,” Schulte said.

The police foundation is certainly not the only nonprofit organization trying to fight crime in Kansas City. The Metropolitan Crime Commission has been around since 1949 and raises about $160,000 annually in private dollars that supplement major federal and state grants. It funds Crime Stoppers and other regional law enforcement efforts.

But Crime Commission Executive Director Richard Easley said he has met with Ritter and doesn’t consider the police foundation a competitor for private funds.

“I don’t have the feeling that they’re fishing in our pond,” Easley said.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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