COMBAT History Part 1: 1989
The First In The Nation

“The problem we have with the drug problem now is we’ve tried to cast it as a war. That is not necessarily fruitful. To just say we want tougher prosecution is a Band-Aid approach.” — Jackson County Legislator Robert Beaird (April 1989)1

Jackson County declares a “violent health epidemic” in early 1989 as the community, like much of the nation, tries desperately to deal with drug-related crime and drug abuse. But recognizing the problem is mostly just a symbolic first step. 

The county lacks the financial resources to seek tangible solutions. That will change as 1989 draws to a close.

While the County Legislature will be hesitant to place the measure on the ballot, Jackson Countians overwhelmingly approve an anti-drug sales tax to not only provide increased funding to bolster law enforcement efforts, but to also support new prevention and treatment programs.

A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report issued in 2000 will summarize the challenges confronting Jackson County as the 1980s were ending—a period the NIJ calls “Pre-COMBAT” :

Throughout the 1980s, the citizens of Kansas City, Missouri, and nearby communities in Jackson County—like residents in many other urban areas throughout the country—felt increasingly besieged by drug abuse and drug-related crimes…. Cocaine and other illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, PCP, heroin, and marijuana were openly traded on street corners. Drug houses were springing up overnight on many blocks of Kansas City and drug-related homicides were on the rise. One out of every two people arrested was a drug user; 80 percent of all crime involved illegal drugs. The tide of drug abuse was spilling over into the schools….

There was a consensus among observers that the response to the substance abuse problem in Kansas City and Jackson County before COMBAT—as in many communities in the nation—was uncoordinated and that there was an absence of leadership committed to solving the crisis.2

With the historic passage of the county-wide anti-drug tax November 7, 1989, Jackson County becomes the first jurisdiction in the United States to adopt a tax dedicated to confronting the drug and crime crisis holistically—a crisis needing to be addressed through increased prevention and treatment, not just enforcement.


MONDAY, APRIL 17, 1989

The Jackson County Legislature declares a “violent health epidemic” as they unanimously adopt a resolution calling for a comprehensive response to the illegal drug emergency plaguing the county, metropolitan Kansas City and much of the nation.

More than 100 people fill the Legislative chamber, many waving “Make Drugs Your Priority” signs. The resolution lacks specifics but formally lists expanding drug law enforcement, prosecution, treatment and prevention as top priorities for Jackson County.

Although he appoints County Prosecutor Albert Riederer and two legislators to formulate a multi-year action plan, Legislative Chairman Fred Arbanas stresses, “We don’t have any funds to spend.”3

All nine county legislators co-sponsor the resolution after extensive meetings with community organizations about the official wording, which includes this closing line: “We pledge to develop an agenda of hope and opportunity for everyone in Jackson County, addressing the social, environmental and economic conditions underlying the drug epidemic.”

FRIDAY, MAY 12, 1989

Concluding its 1989 session, the Missouri General Assembly sends an anti-drug bill to Governor John Ashcroft that features a provision permitting Jackson County to ask voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to fund drug investigations and prosecutions. The new law also requires longer prison sentences for those attempting to sell larger amounts of illegal drugs.

“Under current law if a person sells one joint of marijuana he gets five to 20 years. If they sell a ton, it’s still five to 20 years,” says the bill’s sponsor in the State Senate, Harold L. Caskey of Butler.4


“I think the voters ought to get on this. We’re not going to be able to eradicate drugs throughout the country, but we could make a strong impact in Jackson County.”  Jackson County Sheriff Robert Rennau (July 1989)5


MONDAY, JULY 31, 1989

Prosecutor Albert Riederer, a prominent member of Jackson County’s recently formed Drug Policy Committee, points to a pilot program in Arizona as a potential alternative to only locking up those arrested for drug possession. In Maricopa County, home to Arizona’s largest city, Phoenix, law enforcement officials have partnered with a local non-profit provider to offer “casual drug users” a treatment option that limits their jail time to only 24 hours.

Those completing the treatment program walk away with no criminal record. Participation, however, comes with a significant caveat: signing a statement of guilt that can be used against a person later in court. And the treatment provider’s director takes a decidedly tough approach to administrating the program. She insists Maricopa County prosecutors pursue full chargers against any users failing the program.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Robert Rennau expresses his belief Jackson County should seize the opportunity that Missouri’s new anti-drug law affords: He voices his support for asking Jackson County voters to approve a quarter-cent anti-drug tax. The revenue from the tax would, Sheriff Rennau insists, allow his department to “get into areas we’ve never been in,” including drug treatment and prevention education.6


“It’s new, it’s innovative, and we’re going to be the people who try to do something.” Jackson County Prosecutor Albert Riederer (August 21, 1989)7



The idea of issuing federal bonds to fund America’s “War on Drugs” is floated in the United States Congress. While no formal legislation will be introduced, several representatives and senators compare their informal proposal to issuing bonds during World War II.8


Jackson County’s legislators follow up their mostly symbolic April 1989 resolution proclaiming the drug crisis in the county a top priority. They introduce and begin debating a new resolution that would ask county voters to approve a quarter-cent anti-drug sales tax.

The tax will generate an estimated $14 million per year.

If voters pass the potential ballot measure November 7, they’d make the county the first jurisdiction in the nation with a dedicated anti-drug crime and anti-drug abuse tax.9


Four days after introducing the proposal, Jackson County Legislators decide to delay a final vote on whether or not to put an anti-drug tax measure on the November 7 ballot. The Kansas City Star, in “A Crusade Against Drugs” editorial, responses, “The proposal for a Jackson County drug sales tax has tremendous possibilities. Most are positive. It would be a shame if the people don’t have the chance to vote on the question.”10


“The bold step toward an anti-drug tax by the Jackson County Legislature could hardly have come at a better time.”
— Kansas City Star Editorial (September 7, 1989)11



The Jackson County Legislature continues debating giving voters a chance to consider an anti-drug tax in a special election November 7. Prosecutor Albert Riederer makes a passionate plea to the legislators to support the measure, citing a drive-by shooting that had occurred over the Labor Day weekend.

Drug-fueled crime is “happening every day,” Riederer says, “and it’s happening a mile from this courthouse.”12


Jackson County Legislators make it official. They approve Ordinance 1771—by an 8-0 vote with one absence:

AN ORDINANCE submitting to the qualified voters of Jackson County, Missouri, at a special election to be held on November 7, 1989, a question authorizing Jackson County to impose a countywide sales tax at the rate of one-quarter of one percent solely for the purpose of investigation and prosecution of drug and drug-related offenses, and the incarceration, rehabilitation, treatment, and judicial processing of adult and juvenile violators of drug and drug-related offenses.13


Determining how funds from a proposed anti-drug tax should be allocated proves painstaking. The County Legislature, Prosecutor, County Executive and representatives from several community organizations negotiate for five hours to draft the anti-drug tax ordinance’s provisions:

 Allocating half the revenue toward investigating and prosecuting drug crimes.

 Utilizing the other half for juvenile and circuit courts, to support the Jackson County Detention Center*, and to bolster drug treatment programs.

 Establishing a commission to oversee the tax revenue and make recommendations to the County Legislature for final approval.

 Setting aside revenue from the tax exclusively for anti-drug-related efforts and assuring it is not mixed with other county funds.

Sam Mann, a board member for the Kansas City Housing Authority, emphasizes it’s crucial that the tax not only be used to arrest and prosecute people but also to fund new educational and prevention programs. Shirley Fearon, representing four mental health centers in Jackson County, points out the additional funding would allow about 500 new patients to receive treatment each year—significantly shortening the long waiting list of those needing treatment but unable to afford it.14

* Several County Legislators express concern about increased drug-related arrests further straining the Jackson County Detention Center, which is already operating at full capacity.


The Kansas City Star editorial board endorses the final anti-drug tax proposal to emerge from the long Jackson County Legislative session: “A sensible package has emerged from competing proposals for an anti-drug tax in Jackson County. Very simple, the people can be the winners of this one…. The court and juvenile systems were alarmed about overloads. The mental health and hospital communities spoke up for treatment and rehabilitation.”15


“I don’t think this country has ever faced anything as dangerous as the drug crisis. Drugs are as big a Blue Springs problem as they are an anywhere-else problem.” — Blue Springs Mayor John Michael (October 1989)16



The proposed Jackson County anti-drug tax would enable the Kansas City Police Department to hire at least 30 new drug officers and conduct more undercover investigations, KCPD Chief Larry Joiner announces. The new officers are “bound to have an impact,” he says, as they would expand the department’s Street Narcotics and Drug Enforcement Units by 75%.17


Blue Springs Mayor John Michael and his Sugar Creek counterpart Jack O’Renick express cautious optimism that Eastern Jackson County voters will support the anti-drug tax. O’Renick believes they’ll recognize the drug crisis stretches beyond urban Kansas City: “We’ve got to realize that when the city starts its big push, the dealers are going to flee to the suburbs. I think the time to get ready to fight this thing is before we’ve got crack at Onka Hall.”18


“The one thing that has never been done is to pour sustained force into treatment and education programs. Nationwide, people are favorably impressed with what is happening here.”
 University of Missouri-Kansas City Professor Wayne Lucas (October 1989)19



The Committee for County Progress endorses Jackson County’s anti-drug tax proposal. Calling it “a pretty well-balanced program,” CCP President Mark Gilgus says the organization’s support was contingent on the tax funding prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, rather than only providing more resources for law enforcement agencies to make more arrests.20


A person confided to jail costs taxpayers more than $41 a day, compared to less than $15 for each day that person could be receiving substance abuse treatment.  While the $2.5 million annual allotment for treatment from a proposed Jackson County anti-drug tax would “barely touch the surface of the need” in the county, Shirley Fearon, director of Research Mental Health Services, calls the possible influx of money for treatment “a blessing.”21

Special emphasis should be placed on treating addicted mothers and caring for “crack babies,” according to University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Wayne Lucas. A member of the Metropolitan Kansas City Task Force on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Lucas believes a more holistic approach to the drug epidemic is needed because only putting more resources into law enforcement has repeatedly failed.


“Overall, this is a good tax. Many of our families in the inner city are directly affected by drugs, and this tax will directly benefit us.” 
— The Rev. Donald White, Samuel Rodgers Health Clinic (October 1989)22



At a forum in Kansas City, The Rev. Donald White joins KC Police Officer Marcus Harris and Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Ron Coleman in urging concerned citizens to vote for the proposed anti-drug tax. The audience responses with applause to Coleman’s call “to beat crack” as he refers to the notorious rock form of cocaine as “the beast” causing havoc in the community.

Coleman makes an impassioned plea: “For God’s sake, take this drug problem in your hands and vote for the money.”23


The survival of the Jackson County Drug Task Force probably depends on passage of the anti-drug tax. Blue Springs Police Chief Howard Brown announces the task force’s state and federal grants have been capped and that it is “using surplus money to get through the year.”

Detectives from Eastern Jackson County communities work together on the task force on investigations that each suburban police department alone would lack the resources to conduct.

“If [the tax] doesn’t pass, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Chief Brown states.24


The Kansas City Star’s near daily coverage of the upcoming anti-drug tax election includes an op-ed by Albert Riederer in which the Jackson County Prosecutor implores voters to approve the measure:

I can tell you we have an awful and escalating problem on our hands. Drugs are destroying lives and careers—entire neighborhoods, not only in the inner city, but on every tree-lined street and boulevard in this community.

Crack has spawned an epidemic. Quite frankly, Jackson County is unprepared to handle the onslaught. Felony drug cases filed in Jackson County have increased by 1,200 percent since 1986.25


“The majority of people are not pushers or criminals. We’re convinced that [addiction] is an illness and should be dealt with as an illness.”
— Alvin Brooks, Ad Hoc Group Against Crime Founder (October 1989)26



In offering his organization’s support for the anti-drug tax, Ad Hoc Group Against Crime founder Alvin Brooks insists the drug epidemic must be considered a public health crisis and not merely a legal issue. He says, “We have to deal with the addict’s full recovery and long-range after-care.”27


Law enforcement officials from Eastern Jackson County describe the anti-drug tax election as a “make or break” moment if they are to have any hope of stemming the tide of drug-related crime spreading from urban to suburban communities.

“Four years ago in Lee’s Summit, crack was unheard of,” says Lee’s Summit Police Chief Greg Henderson. “You couldn’t find cocaine, and marijuana was rare. Now you can go out onto the streets any day of the week and buy about as much of anything as you can afford. Without funds to combat it, we have no reason to believe the local drug trade won’t continue to grow just as quickly as it has in the past.”

Without the influx of revenue from the tax, the Jackson County Drug Task Force might have to be disbanded at year’s end. “With [the tax], we can really make a positive impact,” says Sergeant Tom Phillips, the head of the task force. “Without it, we’d further strap local police.”28


A capacity crowd packs the St. John’s Diocesan Center in Kansas City as representatives from area churches demand KC Mayor Richard L. Berkley and Jackson County officials “get serious” about confronting illegal drugs.”

Although County Executive Bill Waris and Prosecutor Albert Riederer cite the upcoming anti-drug tax election—and he, himself, calls it’s a “good step”—The Rev. Michael Roach, spokesman for the Kansas City Church/Community Organization, warns it’s unrealistic to expect the tax “will be the answer to everything.”29


People are very concerned about their children and the integrity of the community. They’re anti-tax, but they’re anti-drug more so.”
— State Representative Jim Barnes (November 7, 1989)30



Jackson County makes history, becoming the first jurisdiction in the nation to approve a tax dedicated to confronting drug crime and preventing/treating drug abuse. The county’s voters pass the quarter-cent sales tax with a commanding 63% to 37% margin.

“The new sales tax approved Tuesday puts Jackson County in the forefront nationally in the war on drugs,” reports The Kansas City Times’ Edward M. Eveld.31

Voters from both Kansas City and Eastern Jackson County support the tax. 

County Legislator Mary Lou Smith immediately calls for the tax revenues to be used to eliminate long waiting lists for addiction treatment. “Let’s see how we can unclog the system,” she says. “I think it really could work.” (The new seven-year tax won’t start being collected until April 1, 1990.)

Shirley Fearon, president of Research Mental Health Services, warns that even the additional $2.5 million the tax is estimated to provide for treatment programs “isn’t enough.”32

1 The Kansas City Star April 14, 1989

2 National Institute of Justice Report: Jackson County, Missouri, COMmunity Backed Anti-Drug Tax (COMBAT) Evaluation March 31, 2000 

3 The Kansas City Times April 18, 1989

4 The Kansas City Star May 23, 1989

5 The Kansas City Star July 31, 1989

6 The Kansas City Star July 31, 1989

7 The Kansas City Star August 22, 1989

8 The Kansas City Star August 11, 1989

9 The Kansas City Times August 22, 1989

10 The Kansas City Star August 25, 1989

11 The Kansas City Star September 7, 1989

12 The Kansas City Star September 6, 1989

13 1989 Jackson County Legislature Agenda: Ordinance 1771

14 The Kansas City Star September 13, 1989

15 The Kansas City Star September 14, 1989

16 The Kansas City Star October 9, 1989

17 The Kansas City Star September 15, 1989

18 The Kansas City Star October 9, 1989

19 The Kansas City Star October 9, 1989

20 The Kansas City Star October 17, 1989

21 The Kansas City Star October 18, 1989

22 The Kansas City Star October 17, 1989

23 The Kansas City Star October 21, 1989

24 The Kansas City Star October 21, 1989

25 The Kansas City Star October 23, 1989

26 The Kansas City Star October 25, 1989

27 The Kansas City Star October 28, 1989

28 The Kanas City Star October 28, 1989

29 The Kansas City Star October 30, 1989

30 The Kansas City Times October 31, 1989

31 The Kansas City Times November 8, 1989

32 The Kansas City Star November 8, 1989

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