Will KC face a shortage of street cops? Here’s what an expert thinks

Illustration by Katie Henrichs.

Across the country, police departments are struggling to retain and hire officers. Kansas City is no stranger to the struggle. Of almost two hundred police departments surveyed nationwide by the Police Executive Research Forum in May of 2021, there was a forty-five percent increase in the retirement rate, an eighteen percent increase in the resignation rate and a five percent decrease in the hiring rate. And according to the police chief of Kansas City, Missouri, numbers here are also on the decline.

Chief Richard Smith wrote a blog post about his declining workforce and lack of new officers in May: “We have not had an Academy class since February 2020 due to funding, so we have continued to fall farther and farther behind on staffing. We are down one hundred and sixteen officers and do not have the budget to replace them.” Reduced staffing could lead to the reduction of community outreach programs and increased response times, Smith warned.

Brandon Davis, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies community contact with the justice system, says Kansas City has three factors that could create a shortage: increases in homicides, scrutiny and a decrease in funding.

“All these things have come together and it’s like a perfect storm,” Davis says. “You’re having police departments that are taxed with more murders and facing a lot of backlash from the protesters and also facing the wrath of city councils and states trying to be more progressive on policing, so they are cutting budgets.”

The budget

The number of officers who retired from the KCMO police department was higher in 2020 than it was in any of the past five years, with sixty-two officers leaving. But it’s too soon to tell what that number means, since the department is under a hiring freeze.

The money may not return, even if the city’s financial situation improves. In May, the KCMO city council approved two new ordinances that reallocate over forty million dollars of the police department’s budget to a separate fund for crime prevention, a move that has led to lawsuits with the state, which controls the department.

The murder rate

At the same time, the homicide rate in Kansas City is on the rise. In 2020, Kansas City saw a record of one hundred and eighty-two homicides. At the end of August 2021, there were already more than one hundred homicides in the city.

For this reason, Davis, who is Black, says Black communities tend to take a dimmer view of the “defund the police” than the far left.“They didn’t want no police in their neighborhood because they knew they had a crime problem,” Davis says. “What they wanted was better policing.”

The scrutiny

Davis says the response to the death of George Floyd has had an impact on street cops.

“You don’t see the same fervor about the homicide rate in Kansas City,” Davis says. “There are other people talking about how you’re up in arms—rightly so—when police kill innocent Black men or innocent women. However, we don’t have the same fervor about the murder rate in Chicago. And those are Black and Brown people being murdered, and their lives have to also matter.”

Davis says this can be a point of frustration for police officers, who, based on the public response, might believe that “lives only matter if we kill them.”

The ‘baby boom’ of cops

The rate of serious crime exploded nationally in the 1980s, spurring the hiring of more police officers. Those officers are now nearing or eligible for retirement.

“There was almost like a baby boom of cops,” Davis says. “Now they’re all at the point where they can retire, and most of them I don’t believe would have retired if it wasn’t for the pandemic and all this other stuff.”

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