Published February 17th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
In January, residents in south Kansas City called police for help 2,676 times.
They called because of domestic violence, suspicious activity, accidents, welfare checks, burglar alarms and a vast range of other reasons.
Some shifts, patrol officers were spending about 80% of their time answering those pleas, estimated Maj. James Buck, the new South Patrol division commander.
That’s higher than what Buck would prefer, and what best practices advocate, which is more along the lines of 60% of patrol time.
It also means that one critical incident in the southern part of the city can leave only one or two patrol officers available to answer calls. It could be a drive-by shooting that calls for officers to secure a whole block of neighborhood, a car wreck with multiple victims or a fight where victims need to be escorted to the hospital or elsewhere for statements.
“Response times matter,” Buck said, noting that the difference can be whether an incident, say people arguing, has the time to “escalate into something truly tragic.”
Buck would like to have enough officers on patrol to respond to all that the public asks of them, while also being assigned to specific neighborhoods, with adequate time to build relationships with residents.
It’s the community policing model that the public often cites as ideal. But it’s difficult when officers spend a large amount of time simply reacting, often after crime occurs, as opposed to preventing it.
Therein lies a current conundrum of policing.
“You start to worry about burnout,” Buck said. “Burnout and the officer’s mental health certainly becomes concerning. How long can this pace be kept up with the same results?”
Retirements of baby boomers within law enforcement are a demographic trend, locally and nationally. So are other factors.
Buck refers to “all the things going on, both politically and publicly” affecting recruitment and retention.
It’s a veiled nod to the heightened scrutiny of the Black Lives Matter movement, the calls for Chief of Police Rick Smith to resign, for a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and highly publicized incidents of police use of force, including a trial that recently convicted a Kansas City officer in one shooting death.
It all informs the backdrop of City Hall budget hearings. Police staffing, what the community expects of officers and their accountability to those taxpayers, are on the table. The new budget must be passed by March 24.
“We are in a great position to have a conversation about what we want the police to be doing in our community,” said Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Novak noted that he’s yet to meet a police chief who says “we have enough officers, we’re good.”
“If crime drops, it’s because our officers are doing a great job,” he said. “And when the crime rate goes up, it’s ‘give us more so that we can push those numbers back down.’ Reality is somewhere in between.”
That said, Novak believes Kansas City needs more officers, given a range of factors that are used by large departments to calculate staffing.
The proposed police budget includes an $8 million increase for the police department, which accounts for nearly 38% of the city’s general fund, at $269 million. The proposed budget includes offering raises and funding to hire an additional 150 officers.
The broader staffing question is where additional hires will be assigned and whether a new chief of police will press for the department to embrace evidence-based policing with outcomes that can be tracked, which is what Novak advocates.
Novak also concedes the overwhelming nature of policing today. Much of what is asked of police is due to other failures in society concerning available adequate housing, education, health care and mental health services.
“Inequality” in particular plays a huge role, he said. “It all trickles down to the police… A lot of what we see in Kansas City is beyond the control of the police department.”
And yet, the public looks to police to respond, as gauged through calls for service. Citywide, those calls for police totaled 23,097 in January.
The winter months generally log fewer calls. But the data is considered highly valuable when communities begin to assess just what they expect of policing.
And patrol officers are expected to keep up.
For now, Buck is down about six officers in South Patrol, better than some of the other five divisions of the city, but enough that even a few new graduates from the academy will merely “backfill” holes in the staff. That’s worrisome for an area that has seen a sharp uptick in violence in recent years, doubling the number of homicides.
“I don’t think anybody envisioned the attrition that we were going to see in this last year,” Buck said. He noted that the department’s loss of officers with five to 10 years of experience, theoretically in their early to mid-careers, is especially worrisome.
Still, with 27 years on the force, Buck asked to be assigned to South Patrol. He was impressed by the community’s willingness to work with police.
“At the end of the day, a lot of it is just communication,” Buck said. “And just being able to get out, to get involved. And that’s boots on the ground, that’s just numbers.”
The constant struggle to keep enough officers available to patrol is “the hamster wheel” of policing, said retired New York Police Commander James E. McCabe, now an associate professor of criminal justice at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He’s authored several papers on police staffing.
As senior officers retire from specialized units, their replacements are often pulled from patrol, depleting those ranks, which are expected to answer the 911 calls for service within a reasonable response time, McCabe said.
“Handling calls for service, it’s sort of the albatross of policing,” he said. “But they have to handle those in some way, shape or form.”
Larger departments such as Kansas City are vast and complex, with numerous jobs for sworn officers apart from the patrol officers. A few areas that aren’t as high profile would include professional development and research, internal affairs, narcotics and vice and undercover units.
As of Feb. 1, Kansas City had 1,154 sworn officers. The distribution by patrol and just some of the other specialized divisions looked like this:
“Determining the number of police officers needed for any given community is often an exercise in great speculation,” began the introduction to one study that McCabe co-authored.
Another paper that he prepared for the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) noted:
“Police staffing models in the U.S. are generally determined by one of five common methods. Departments traditionally have used crime trends, a per-capita approach, minimum-manning levels, authorized/budgeted levels, and least-commonly, workload-based models to make staffing decisions.”
Here is the problem with one common approach, citing crime trends as a benchmark for the numbers of officers needed. When police are effective, fewer officers are needed. It’s possible for departments to incentivize poor police practices by continuing to add more police around crime trends, with the additional officers expected to use strategies that aren’t working.
In other cases, current strength of numbers is determined by previous strength, absent newer assessments. Or numbers are set by the previous budget allocation.
“In fact, many criminologists discount the role of the police entirely when it comes to crime rates in a community,” according to McCabe. “So, using crime rates to staff a police department is not the recommended approach. Fortunately, this model of staffing is rarely used anymore.”
Another complicating factor can be the unions that represent police. If the collective bargaining agreement “memorializes” staffing levels, it can be difficult for leadership to shift the numbers, based on current needs and the community’s desires, McCabe wrote.
One key is focusing on hot spots of crime and people who are considered to be prolific offenders. Departments need to do this while also allowing patrol officers enough time not spent answering calls for service. About 40% of their time is considered ideal, so they can engage in “positive community contact.”
“Simply hiring more police officers and then assigning them to desk jobs is not helpful,” McCabe said. “But the right people, at the right times, in the right places, can have an enormous impact.”
A key calculation in deciding staffing is to look at what the community is asking of them, McCabe and others said.
Last year, the Kansas City Police Department began posting online monthly details of calls for service, by patrol division and type. It’s an interactive model and anyone can manipulate the data to see what percentage and raw numbers of calls are logged under slots like accident, alarm, armed event, suspicious activity, disturbance and emotionally disturbed person.
The data is considered a key starting point to determine staffing in that it reflects what different portions of the city are currently asking of police.
McCabe said it’s imperative to assess the quality of the calls coming in, then triaging what can be handled elsewhere, like through the city’s 311 number.
McCabe also said it is pertinent to realize that many calls turn out to be somewhat frivolous, such as false alarms and things that might be better handled through other measures.
Dissecting what police do now surfaces in conversations about shifting policing’s focus and reengaging them with the community.
Marvia Jones was recently named the city’s new director of the health department. She previously was the violence prevention and policy manager.
Her view is broad, seeing violence prevention strategies that look to the seeds of how crime starts, with families struggling financially with toxic stress and trauma.
“A lot of the strategies that we talk about as far as primary prevention of violence involve really building up a small family and supporting them,” she said.
Further, she noted that a “community connectedness” is one of the highest predictors of having lower rates of violence. That can mean any effort to bring families together in a healthy way, such as block parties and other ways that people can look out for each other.
Jones notes the disjointed thinking that sometimes erupts between wanting to address current rates of violence with more police, given the high numbers of young Black men dying of gun violence.
She doesn’t want that outcry to cause people to lose sight of the preventative measures within public health that she’s studied for years. Affordable housing, access to health care and employment are also violence prevention strategies.
“Different voices have to keep saying it,” she said. “We’re going to have to keep tying it to violence.”
Racism is also a huge stress, and can help people understand the concentrated nature of violent crime in some urban neighborhoods.
“If you can do something today or this year that could prevent people from dying 10 years from now, would you do it? You know, you might not see the reduction next month. But would you still do this for the benefit of the child who’s now five?”
John Lacy and Jordan Sanders share a fervent hope that policing in America can change.
Both are Black men. Both are police officers. But they’re a generation apart, each entering law enforcement on the heels of infamous cases of police brutality: Rodney King and George Floyd.
Sanders will soon graduate from the Kansas City Regional Police Academy. In late March the Kansas City native will begin work as a rookie patrol officer in Kansas City.
He’ll be a part of the rush to answer all of those 911 and other calls for service. And he’ll begin his career under an outgoing chief of police and as a new one is ushered in.
“There’s an unspoken pressure,” he said of being a Black cadet. “But it’s a pressure that we put on ourselves.”
He’s a nearly 29-year veteran of the Overland Park Police Department.
Each man is hopeful that their era will be the one when policing makes significant strides toward treating people who look like they do with equal consideration.
Lacy is a familiar face in the metropolitan area. As the public information officer for Overland Park police, he regularly appears on television, a genial voice patiently answering questions and giving updates to the press.
But his heart beats faster, his voice turns steely when he recalls seeing the video of George Floyd, face down, pressed to a Minneapolis street beneath the weight of a police officer’s knee.
“Get off his neck,” Lacy recalled his reaction. “Get off his neck.”
He remembers being “disgusted” by the officer’s actions, which killed Floyd and eventually saw the officer convicted in the death.
His repulsion echoed the emotion he felt as a young man, when he was a student at Missouri Western State University studying for his criminal justice degree.
In March 1991, grainy footage captured by a bystander bore witness to the unarmed Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. When four of the officers were acquitted of using excessive force, much of the nation erupted in rioting.
In St. Joseph, Lacy joined his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers on campus, marching in protest. It’s why he saw himself in those who participated in the recent Black Lives Matter movement.
“Each generation has had some kind of incident with police,” he acknowledged. He’s hyper aware of his chosen career’s racist early beginnings, as a force that terrorized enslaved people to squelch attempts at escape, then chased them down like chattel when they did.
Lacy likened being Black and a police officer to a coin. He’s able to empathize with critics, while also feeling the pressures public backlash has put on law enforcement.
Sanders already feels it, along with a type of “extra pressure” that he puts on himself, a Black recruit.
“I just want people to understand that we are trying,” Sanders said. “It’s not that we, the police department itself, isn’t trying. I know there have been a lot of things that have happened in the past, even most recently that may cause people to lose faith in the police.”
Sanders is beginning his career within a police department in transition.
A new chief of police, to replace Smith, will be hired. Efforts to insert more accountability between the citizens and the state-appointed Board of Police Commissioners is ongoing. And it’s unknown if other voices pressing for a federal investigation into past and current practices of the department will prevail.
Still, Sanders said he’s eager to begin work: “I feel like every recruit that is in my class feels like we all have a sense of responsibility to help rebuild what was damaged.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. Cami Koons, who covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America, created the graphics for this story. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.