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Nick’s Picks | KC Police Chief, Kevin Strickland and New COVID Variant Top the News A Look at the Week Ahead, Before it Happens

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Above image credit: "Kansas City Week in Review" host Nick Haines. (John McGrath | Flatland)
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5 minute read

The help wanted sign is going up for a new police chief in Kansas City.

Rick Smith has confirmed he will retire next year. But it’s not clear whether he’s leaving voluntarily or was forced out.

Chief Smith’s decision comes just days after a police detective was found guilty of killing Cameron Lamb, a 26-year-old Black man.

The verdict had reignited calls for Smith’s resignation.

This morning the Board of Police Commissioners will convene a special meeting to discuss a personnel issue, though the police chief’s name is not specified on the agenda.

Smith has led the Kansas City, Missouri, police department since 2017.

Strickland Savors Freedom

For the first time in 42 years, Kevin Strickland is spending his first full week as a free man.

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, a judge ruled he’d been wrongfully convicted of a triple murder in Kansas City back in 1978.

Strickland’s first stop after being released was at his mother’s grave. She died two months ago. But he was denied compassionate leave to attend her funeral. 

Over the weekend he flipped the light switch on the mayor’s Christmas tree at Crown Center. 

Strickland says his dream is to see the ocean, which he has never experienced. He was arrested at the age of 18.

Despite being exonerated, Strickland won’t get a dime from the state. That’s because Missouri’s compensation law only allows for payments to prisoners who prove their innocence through DNA testing. That was not the case for Strickland. 

There has been a push to change the law to mirror one in Kansas that awards $65,000 in compensation for each year a person was wrongly incarcerated.

In the meantime, a GoFundMe page has been set up to help Strickland transition to life on the outside. As of this morning, it has raised more than $1.5 million with donations pouring in from around the world. 

Omicron Variant

The most unpredictable storyline to watch this week is omicron.

The new COVID variant discovered in South Africa has prompted the Biden administration to impose new travel bans on visitors from eight countries in that region. Israel has gone further. It’s now closed its borders to all foreigners for two weeks. 

That, by the way, could affect Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who is scheduled to leave later this week on a trade mission to Israel. 

Even though we don’t know yet if the omicron variant causes more severe disease or can resist our current vaccines, it’s rattling the financial markets and causing a sharp drop in oil prices.

It’s also prompting some states to launch preemptive shutdowns.

The governor of New York has already declared a state of emergency. All elective surgeries in New York have been put on hold through mid-January.

Could that happen here?

New Kansas Vaccine Law

A new Kansas law restricting employer vaccine mandates is now in effect. 

This week, human resources directors are going to have to figure out what it means in their workplaces.

According to the law signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, any worker can request an exemption from a company’s vaccine policy if they have a religious or moral objection to the shot. Under the measure, an employer can’t ask for further clarification or require supporting documentation from a worker. 

Companies face fines of up to $50,000 for violating the law. 

Critical Race Theory

Ahead of new legislative sessions in Kansas and Missouri, lawmakers in both states will hold hearings this week on the impact of critical race theory in schools. 

In Missouri, the Joint Committee on Education is meeting Tuesday to discuss how history is being taught in classrooms. 

On the same day, Kansas lawmakers will begin two days of hearings that will feature testimony from education officials and private citizens on whether CRT is “finding its way into the classroom.”

Critical race theory is an academic concept that examines how institutions perpetuate racial inequality. It became a big issue in local school board elections earlier this month.

Kansas Reopens Redistricting Hearings

This summer, Kansas lawmakers were blasted for holding redistricting hearings with barely any advance notice and at inconvenient times that made it tough for the public to attend.

This week, you get a second shot at letting your voice be heard.

If you want to weigh in on how decision makers should redraw the state’s political maps, here’s your chance. 

There’s a lot at stake, including the fate of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas. Her third district congressional seat may dramatically change. One proposal would cut out large parts of Wyandotte County from her district. That would make it tougher for her to win re-election and swing the district in the Republicans favor. 

Unlike the first round of town halls in August, which were held in person, lawmakers during this new round of events will attend virtually.

You’ll be able to talk to them through video conference technology set up at the two locations in our area. 

They are the First Baptist Church in Stilwell and at City Hall in Bonner Springs.

Both hearings take place this Tuesday night between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

The hearings will be livestreamed on the legislature’s YouTube channel.

Festival of Lights

Our Jewish friends and neighbors are celebrating Hanukkah. 

The eight-day holiday runs through Monday of next week.

In conjunction with Hanukkah, Union Station has launched a new free exhibit featuring more than 1,000 historic artifacts centering on Jewish religious worship. 

No tickets are required to see the collection. It’s on display in Union Station’s Main Hall.

The Nutcracker Returns

The Nutcracker returns this week. 

After canceling its biggest money-making show last year due to COVID, the Kansas City Ballet brings back the holiday favorite to the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts this Friday night. It will run through Christmas Eve.

But ballet leaders are worried about some uncomfortable encounters over its strict vaccine policy.

No one is allowed to see the show without proof of a COVID shot, including children. 

But the ballet is increasingly concerned that the message may not reach people who bought tickets on third-party sites online.

The ballet’s directors say they want to avoid a scenario of turning families away at the door, simply because they did not know the ballet’s vaccine policy.

Truman Library Reopens … Again

It had its grand reopening this summer and then abruptly closed again amid COVID concerns. 

Now the totally revamped Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum reopens for a second time this week. 

If you missed seeing the $29 million makeover, here’s your second chance.

The museum in Independence swings open its doors to visitors this Thursday.

But to avoid crowds, you have to purchase timed-entry tickets online.

Buck in the Hall of Fame?

He was snubbed by Major League Baseball just before his death in 2006. Now Buck O’Neil has a second shot at the Hall of Fame.

The late Kansas City Negro Leagues legend has been included on the early baseball era ballot.

The vote will take place this Sunday at MLB’s Winter Meeting in Orlando. The results will be announced on the MLB Network that night.

Buck O'Neil
Buck O’Neil stands with a statue of himself in the Negro League Baseball Museum in 2005. (AP Photo | Charlie Riedel)

Another Whataburger

The metro’s largest traffic jam moves from Lee’s Summit to Independence this week.

That’s where the second Whataburger store is opening today.

The San Antonio-based burger chain with a cult following is offering free hamburgers for a year for those first in line at its new store at the intersection of U.S. 40 & E. Valley View Parkway.

If you know anything about me, you’ll know that this would be my signal to go to the Lee’s Summit location to avoid the crowds.

The first Kansas side store will open on 135th Street in Overland Park in late December or early January.

Around a dozen Whataburger locations are planned around the metro by 2023.

Nick Haines dissects the week’s most impactful local news stories, Fridays at 7:30 p.m. on Kansas City PBS.

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