Introducing Kansas City's 13th Council Member: Police Chief Rick Smith
City Council in the latest round of redistricting included language that there should be consideration to expanding the number of council people that serve our city.
Well…if you have been paying attention during this budget season it appears an additional council member has been added without getting elected: Police Chief Rick Smith of the newly created 1125 Locust District.
Smith has been an outspoken critic of the city council’s moves to adjust the police budget to create more accountability for the funds.
He has done this in council meetings or even at the Board of Police Commissioners, who actually run the police department, are unelected, unaccountable, and controlled by the invisible hand of right wing talking points.
More importantly, he often runs to the media, mainly just Pete Mundo’s talk radio show, to complain and inject political rhetoric into the debate. In conservative speak, Mundo’s show serves as a “safe space” for police chiefs who can’t handle tough questions from normal journalists and citizens.
It is not unusual for city departments and their leaders to argue for more money, support, or changes to help their staff and their operations. Most of that is done within the bounds of the city council meetings or staff meetings not drug out onto political talk shows. And the language in which those arguments are made by city staff are remarkably apolitical.
Smith and his antics are a dramatic departure from that tradition.
And it’s inappropriate.
He is acting like the 13th city council member.
He, in theory, is an employee of the Kansas City, Missouri police department and, at least rhetorically, he says he serves the citizens of Kansas City. In reality, he serves the Governor Parson’s Board of Police Commissioners, which only includes one democratically elected representative Mayor Quinton Lucas.
And the City Council, save for a few examples, just lets him do it.
Now, I watch a lot of Channel 2, the city’s streaming service that broadcasts meetings, and I have seen repeatedly City Council push back forcefully and sometimes even rudely against city staff. Council asserts regularly that THEY are final decision makers and they were elected not the city staff. This has happened for things big and small such when it came to the massive airport concessionaire contract and when the bids should be made available to the council and the public. We’ve also seen freak outs at city planning staff when staff was defending city standards against a non-compliant Hyvee grocery project in the northland.
The point is City Council and the Mayor regularly make clear they are the final decision makers but they fail to keep that energy with Chief Smith or the police department when the Chief acts like more like a council colleague than the Chief of Police. It’s like watching a balloon deflate week after week.
The unnecessary deference was on full when the Finance, Governance, and Public Safety committee effectively threw in the towel on actually controlling how the police funding above the required 20% threshold is spent. Police officers and commanders came in uniform and packed the council chamber to testify. It was an unusual display that really no other city department in recent memory has done and I’m guessing actively avoid.
The committee recommended Mayor Quinton Lucas’ budget option of “Establishing the City of Kansas City, Missouri’s expectation regarding the utilization of funds appropriated to the Board of Police Commissioners of Kansas City, Missouri from the Community Policing and Prevention Fund.”
“Expectations” are what you have for unruly 7th graders not a $270 million per year police force.
Chalk that one up as a victory for Councilmember Rick Smith and lack of accountability.
This might seem like super in the weeds and nit-picky. But Smith’s posture and the department as a whole leaning into and being active in city politics is dangerous and exemplifies how separate they are from the city and its residents.
The entire point of a City Manager form of government and the departments underneath it is to be “professional” and as apolitical as possible. The Police Department has taken the exact opposite stance, in part because they are separate from the city and they can do whatever they want.
The politicization of the Chief of Police position and the use of the department and its personnel to wade into budget politics erodes trust, further divides the city and its leaders, and is simply something the Chief should not be allowed to do. Running to conservative talk radio every time you get pissed off isn’t what a professional in a position of immense power is supposed to do.
The Chief’s posture and the lack of outrage in the way in which he engages these discussions only further validates many residents’ belief that the police department is not “a part of the community.” When they act in a political manner unlike other city departments and are seen as a oppositional force, the state control and its implications are on full display. They operate on their own terms and advocate for their best interest. The separation allows for a singular focus on their own interests not collaboration with the departments, the community, and our elected officials.
That’s a big problem and Chief Smith acting as the 13th council member deepens this separation and makes him even more ineffective than he already is.
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