Published May 12th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The math behind the tsunami of change hurtling toward the Kansas City Police Department is simple. There’s a lot to do and not enough officers to handle it.
Calls for service, including 911 pleas for help from the public, were up 15% during April. Homicides are on track to repeat, if not exceed, the record total of 182 during 2020. The same can be said of drive-by shootings and gunshots that hit someone, but thankfully, don’t take their life.
On the other side of the public safety ledger, the number of police trained and on patrol in Kansas City is decreasing at a rate of about 8.5 officers a month. The accelerating decline is causing some to sound alarms that the department could wind up staffed at levels from 30 years ago.
If fully staffed and funded, the department would have 116 more officers than the current 1,253. In addition, the department has vacancies for 44 police officer candidates and 68 civilian employees.
“As the calls go up, the response times are going to go up and we’re going to feel the result of the lack of staffing,” said Deputy Chief Karl Oakman during Tuesday’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting. “Hopefully, we can get an academy class going.”
But there’s a freeze on hiring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other budget constraints. The regional police academy hasn’t graduated a class for the KCPD since September, although it continues to train officers for other area departments who pay more than $5,000 per candidate for the service.
The recruits that Kansas City does line up are sometimes poached by surrounding suburban police departments that are also eager to keep their ranks filled. And then there are the lateral transfers by officers who leave Kansas City to work elsewhere in the metro.
Virtually all local police departments are affected by demographics driven by retiring baby boomers. But there is also what many in law enforcement contend is an unrelenting and often unfair scrutiny of policing by the public, driven by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Many officers bristle at their life’s work being branded with broad brush allegations of systemic racism and unaccountability.
To others, that’s exactly what should be occurring. They want to reshape policing by pushing out and making unwelcome the type of officer who would abuse the badge.
Amidst it all, Kansas Citians keep calling the police for help. Every sector of the city saw an increase response times in April.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith noted that officers assigned to the Northland recently had to be dispatched to the Southland to cover a call there. He worries the day may come when no zone in the city can completely cover its calls for service.
And while the department’s leadership pushes back at social media characterizations that portray a mass exodus of the department’s officers, they also don’t sugarcoat the dilemma.
“This department runs on people power,” said Smith, who is being pressured by some community groups to resign.
Sergeants, community interaction officers and other supervisors already are at times being put into patrol to make sure calls for service are covered.
Smith warns of the “tough decisions” that he may need to make in the future in order to ensure that calls for service are answered, a threat that might mean taking officers away from popular programs like Police Athletic League, which works with youth.
“Ultimately, it is the community that will suffer,” Smith said.
Where police see problems in staffing, others find hope for change.
Henry C. Service helped organize and spoke at several of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. An attorney, he owns the Historic Lincoln Building in the 18th and Vine jazz district.
“We are either under-policed or over-policed, depending on the neighborhood that you live in,” Service said of Kansas City. “To the extent that they are having a downswing in recruiting, then I can’t see it affecting the community much.”
In fact, critics believe the fact that some officers are leaving the department could indicate a good change.
“I don’t feel sorry for the police,” Service said. “If they are suffering now because the people have spoken, then it is a victory for all the people who have been protesting.”
Service surmised that perhaps those with a “good old boys club” or a “them versus us” mentality towards the community might be among those leaving the department now. If true, that can offer the opportunity for more diverse recruiting and filling open positions with police more focused on partnering with the community to solve problems.
What’s happening is not isolated to Kansas City.
Police departments across the county, some large municipal ones and many much smaller, are having trouble hiring. In cities large and small, budgets have been cut, impacted by a loss of revenues due to the pandemic.
And baby boomers are continuing to leave the job market, an unstoppable demographic reality that affects just about every job sector in America. The Labor Department reported Tuesday that job openings stood at a record 8.1 million at the end of March, exposing a yawning gap between open positions and people willing and able to fill all types of jobs.
But clearly, it’s not just demographics that ails policing in America. Some police euphemistically refer to the “current environment,” which many date to the protests that followed the police shooting and death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
“Ever since Ferguson we have seen a huge reduction in applicants,” noted Overland Park Detective Bob Valencia, who is the lead background investigator with the recruiting and hiring division.
Overland Park used to average about 100 applicants a month for its police department, Valencia said. The numbers are closer to 15 to 20 a month now.
Overland Park has three openings now, but also has three conditional offers made.
The department recruits consistently, with a heavy focus on drawing diverse applicants by going to historically Black colleges and other targeted opportunities.
“I think it will come back around,” Valencia said of interest in law enforcement. “All of the stuff that is happening, there are a lot of good things coming out of it.”
Ken Sissom is director of the Johnson County Regional Police Academy, which trains officers for 18 police agencies in the county. It’s located on the campus of Johnson County Community College. On Tuesday, a class of 19 graduated, one of the three training sessions held each year.
Sissom, a former chief in Merriam and that city’s current mayor, is 65.
“Policing isn’t getting any easier — to recruit or to do,” Sissom said, noting the high volume of calls for service that now involve mental health issues.
“People need to recognize that just because they hear it in one place, doesn’t mean it happens everywhere,” he said.
Still, he noted, “I would never work in a community that didn’t support law enforcement.”
Four years ago, Jonathan Juin left his job as a police officer in Kansas City, Kansas, to join the Overland Park department.
Immediately, the supportive atmosphere of the community became apparent, he said. Juin noted that people also were grateful in Wyandotte County, especially with help around violent crime.
“But there is just a strong sense of support,” he said of Overland Park. “It does make my job easier.”
But what influenced his decision was flexibility. Along with his wife, he wanted the freedom to live outside of Wyandotte County, although they haven’t moved.
Juin, 31, plans to go into leadership and is working on a graduate degree in criminal justice. Juin is a first-generation American, as his parents immigrated from Haiti.
“I know that every contact that I make is like an interview,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to give someone some additional insight into law enforcement and policing in general.”
Recruiting such diverse candidates isn’t the mystery that some police departments claim, said Cassi L. Fields, a national consultant who helps departments reshape hiring efforts around diversity, including some under federal consent decrees. Much of her work has been done through the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“There are places that do go and attract huge numbers of minorities and females,” she said. “They know they either won’t select them during the selection process, or they will cut them through the academy or training.”
One successful approach saw a chief of police intensely diversify the civilian employees of his department first. That helped change the culture and sent a message about who would be welcomed, she said. He hired the right recruiting staff and went to the right places, she said.
“People could see the diversity pretty quickly, she said. “You start and then it continues and continues.”
Kansas City’s situation is also a relevant factor, she said. If no academy is being held, recruits will be lured away by other departments that are more ready to hire.
She is not convinced, however, that a department’s recruiting difficulties can be attributed to protesters calling for reforms.
Too many other factors are likely at play, including the fact that people are shifting jobs and even areas of the nation where they chose to live, some of it due to the pandemic. More data is needed, she said.
KCPD’s Oakman represents one of the metropolitan area’s most sought after job candidates — an African American devoted to a career in policing. Tuesday’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting was his last in Kansas City. In June, he plans to jump the state line, taking over as the next chief of police in Kansas City, Kansas, the community where he grew up.
After decades consulting with departments, Fields has decided that a focus on diversity hiring can never let up.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” Fields said. “It will never end.”
Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency.