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Kansas City fights the state of Missouri for control of its police department

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Defunding the police - it's become one of those phrases that politicians and activists throw around at each other. But in Kansas City, Mo., they're debating something else - whether the city or the state gets to manage the law enforcement budget. Celisa Calacal from KCUR has this report.

CELISA CALACAL, BYLINE: In recent years, the battle over police control often centers around a controversial shooting. That was the case in April, when the Kansas City Police did not immediately arrest a white homeowner who shot and wounded a Black teenager who was at the wrong house when he rang the homeowner's doorbell. Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson was one of many protesting the police's inaction during a rally.

MELISSA ROBINSON: We need to activate local control, and we need to activate it now.

CALACAL: Unlike any other major city in the country, policing in Kansas City falls under the authority of the state. It's a system that dates back to the Civil War, although Kansas City did have local control of the police department for a brief period in the 1930s. Ken Novak, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says ever since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., there's been a more urgent push for local control.

KEN NOVAK: The events in Ferguson, and I think the events surrounding George Floyd, has changed that narrative and changed the conversation. And more people who were, frankly, ambivalent to how police are governed locally suddenly began to look and care a little bit more than we had seen in previous decades.

CALACAL: Missouri's Board of Police Commissioners can set department policy, hire a new police chief and control the budget. The governor appoints four members. The fifth is the Kansas City mayor. And the city's current mayor, Quinton Lucas, is an outspoken critic of state control.

QUINTON LUCAS: It is putting us in a plantation mentality, fundamentally, where we're saying someone else somewhere can run all the decisions for us, and we're just here to work and fund them.

MARTIN: And funding is a key issue. Last year, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill forcing Kansas City to increase minimum funding of its police departments from 20 to 25% of its general revenue. Republican state lawmaker Tony Luetkemeyer was the bill's sponsor.

TONY LUETKEMEYER: So this is merely giving the predictability and stability to the police department so they can continue doing their jobs to keep Kansas Citians safe.

CALACAL: A majority of Missouri voters, except those in Kansas City, approved legislation which paved the way for the largest budget allocation for the Kansas City Police Department in five years. Mayor Lucas called that wrong and subsequently filed a lawsuit challenging state control.

LUCAS: Why is it that 508,000 Kansas Citians should have fewer rights than the other 6 million people in Missouri?

CALACAL: Gwen Grant, CEO of the Kansas City Urban League, also filed a lawsuit challenging state control.

GWEN GRANT: This form of governing is archaic. We should be in control of our police department, especially considering the fact that we fund it.

CALACAL: The battle over who should control the Kansas City Police - the state of Missouri or the city itself - could take years. If lawsuits don't work, Kansas City leaders say they could pursue the same steps as St. Louis. The state's other big city used a ballot initiative to win back control of its police department in 2012.

For NPR News, I'm Celisa Calacal in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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