- Associated Press - Friday, July 10, 2020

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - After several nights of protest at the Country Club Plaza ended with tear gas and arrests, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith waded into a crowd that was demanding reform.

Demonstrators wanted answers about police shootings of Black men, about Smith’s lack of cooperation with the resulting investigations, and about his department’s use of dangerous projectiles against the protesters.

Some chanted: “Fire Rick Smith!”

More than a month later, Smith shows no sign of going anywhere. Described by friend and foe alike as a chief in the mold of the rank-and-file, Smith was the police union’s choice to lead the department. He’s been described as insular and resistant to the change that is being called for across the country, The Kansas City Star reports.

Now, Smith is in the spotlight in Kansas City like never before.



He has defended officers recently indicted in a fatal shooting and an excessive force case, and refused to provide crucial charging documents to the Jackson County prosecutor.

The first three years of Smith’s tenure have seen Kansas City police shoot and kill twice as many Black men as the first three years of the previous chief. Under him, the department publicly took the position that if a police officer fired, it must be justified.

The department is whiter and, some say, more aggressive than when Smith started.

After Smith scrapped the city’s main anti-violence strategy, homicides are soaring to record levels.

Since the protests began this summer, calls for reform have gotten louder and a growing chorus of community leaders - including some normally aligned with KCPD - are calling for Smith’s resignation.

“I’m working long hours to keep the organization running and doing the best job I can,” Smith said during a recent interview at Kansas City police headquarters. “There’s many perceptions of the police department. And you know, I don’t think it’s all bad, despite what some might say. I think there’s people out there who think we’re doing a good job.”

The Star interviewed 40 people from across the city, including clergy, politicians, civil rights advocates, corporate leaders, neighborhood presidents and former colleagues, asking for their observations of Smith’s performance as police chief.

Opinions were sharply divided by geographic and racial lines.

Smith is frequently seen at business and neighborhood events in the city’s predominantly white Northland. But south of the river in predominantly Black sections, several community groups say they have not been able to get his attention.

Catina Taylor, a leader of the Blue Hills Neighborhood Association, said she repeatedly invited Smith to attend her group’s monthly meetings. He has yet to show.

The Rev. Ronald Lindsay, senior pastor of the Concord Fortress of Hope Church in south Kansas City, said he has called Smith several times but has never heard back.

Others told similar stories.

“Chief Smith has hid behind the blue shield and has not stepped out in front of the shield and really spoke to the heart of the hurt of the community,” said the Rev. Darron Edwards, lead pastor of the United Believers Community Church.

NORTH AND SOUTH OF THE RIVER

As a candidate for chief in 2017, Smith was supported by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, a police union known nationally for its steadfast defense of officers and its resistance to outside calls for reform.

Locally, the FOP is known for its influence both inside and outside the police department.

Some members of the Board of Police Commissioners desired an outsider to be the next chief - someone who could bring sweeping reform to the department. A police chief in Norman, Oklahoma, was the other finalist for the job, but Smith won by a narrow commission vote.

“I think we missed an opportunity by not hiring somebody outside KCPD,” said Tom Porto, a Kansas City attorney who has represented clients in lawsuits against the police department. “There needs to be institutional change and somebody on the inside is not going to do it.”

At least two community leaders called Smith “a real officer’s police chief,” saying he protects the interests of those wearing the badge, some of whom know him from working in the streets together.

Relationships with people outside the police department are just as important, civic leaders agree.

“I think it’s a truism in any city that the police chief has to have the relationships,” said Pat McInerney, a former federal prosecutor and Kansas City police commissioner.

“Those strong relationships have to be pre-existing having the job as the chief. That’s something the last couple of chiefs had as real strengths.”

“I’m not here to tell you Rick Smith doesn’t, but I think those relationships are important,” he said.

Some community leaders did say Smith was not as connected to the public as the previous two chiefs - James Corwin, who served from 2004 to 2011, and now-Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté, who led the department from 2011 to 2017 - had been.

Forté agreed community engagement is not “where it once was before.”

“I don’t see Chief Smith as a very visible (police) chief,” Forté said. “And that’s OK, until you need the people to come out and listen to you.”

“You most likely won’t be successful at the level you want to be successful if you are not engaged pre-incident.”

Forté said he reached out to Smith early on in his tenure, asking if there was anything he needed. The sheriff has sent and texted him words of encouragement, but has received no response.

Corwin said Smith has had to endure a number of challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and the prospect of budget cuts.

“It’s a complicated mess for him,” Corwin said.

Smith said he has made himself available to meet with clergy and neighborhood leaders whenever his schedule permits.

“I am a Catholic,” he said. “I have not met every priest in the city. I am not trying to be obstinate or dodge anybody is what I’m saying.”

Those who live in the predominantly white neighborhoods in the Northland praise Smith as an engaging problem solver and someone who genuinely cares about the community. They say he is very accessible and eager to listen.

“Since he has been chief, he has done a phenomenal job,” said Deb Hermann, executive director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., a community development corporation that serves Clay and Platte counties.

Councilwoman Heather Hall, whose First District is entirely in Clay County, said most chiefs delegate tasks to their ranks. But she recalled seeing Smith go with a firefighter to assist someone having a medical emergency one year during the Thanksgiving lighting at the Country Club Plaza. After, he helped direct traffic.

“He’s out there in the thick of things,” Hall said.

In September, Smith gave a luncheon presentation to the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce to discuss crime trends.

Asked if Smith was receptive to speaking to the group, the Northland chamber’s events and communications director, Jenny Johnston, said, “Absolutely. We have a great relationship with the police department.”

But South of the Missouri River and in the city’s urban core, many reached by The Star had a different view. Some said Smith lacks visibility in their neighborhoods and called his leadership combative, “trivial” and “insignificant.”

“If he wants to build a relationship with the community, it doesn’t seem like a priority to him,” said the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church. “The community sees police as the bad guys and he has to change that. The only way that is going to change is they (police) have to come out of the arrest mode and come into the service mode.”

Rachel Riley, president of the East 23rd Street PAC Neighborhood Association, said Smith has only been out in the community since the recent outcry over police killings.

Many on the East Side previously supported Smith, she said, but have since felt their issues were ignored.

“You were going to be diligent. You were going to serve the people,” Riley said. “And serving the people is not sitting in an office in a building that we’re paying for, for you to do nothing.”

Of those contacted by The Star, one pastor described Smith as reachable. That was the Rev. John Modest Miles of Morning Star Baptist Church, which is located across the street from the police department’s East Patrol station.

Miles, a police chaplain, said he once called the city’s top cop at midnight to talk about an issue. Miles said he wished more community groups would invite Smith to forums so “they could get to really know him for who he is.”

‘NO ACCOUNTABILITY’

In recent years, the city’s police chiefs and county prosecutors usually worked side-by-side, even when it came to investigating police shootings.

But Smith has found himself at odds with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

The change in tone was apparent, Baker said, when the new chief called her, extremely upset that she had met with a police commander without first clearing it with him.

“I apologized to him,” Baker said. “As long as I know what the new rules are, I’ll follow.”

Another sign came on an afternoon in June 2018, when Kansas City police in the Northland shot and killed a woman with a sword who was surrounded by tactical officers.

Capt. Lionel Colón, a department spokesman appointed under Smith, spoke at the scene minutes after the shooting while the investigation had just started.

He called the shooting “unavoidable.”

“I wasn’t there, but if officers are going to use their weapon, it’s only in a situation when their lives or the lives of the public are in danger,” Colón said.

About an hour later that afternoon, other Kansas City officers shot and killed two men who were struggling over a gun at Barney Allis Plaza downtown. One of the men was armed, and the other was allegedly being assaulted by him.

When asked recently about his thoughts on his spokesman’s comments that day, Smith said he did not know the context.

“I don’t have everything in front of me,” he said.

“When you took the cases apart systematically, I think the officers did what they thought was right at the time,” Smith said. “It’s hard when you see our officers involved in those situations, no one wants that. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to try to get everyone safely to a conclusion of whatever incident we’re in.”

No charges have been filed in the shootings that day, even though one of the men killed at Barney Allis Plaza didn’t have a gun.

Smith noted that each shooting is the subject of an internal department assessment and is reviewed by the county prosecutor.

But Baker has had problems with the police department’s investigations of itself.

Before being made a department spokesman, Colón, who said the officers in the Northland must have been justified, had served in internal affairs under the previous chief.

In Forté’s first three years as chief, from October 2011 to November 2014, Kansas City police shot and killed four Black men. In the first three years under Smith, they have killed nine.

In December, detective Eric DeValkenaere shot Cameron Lamb, a Black man who was sitting in a vehicle in his own backyard.

Then in May 2019, officers Matthew Brummett and Charles Prichard were recorded on video handcuffing a Black transgender woman and were accused of slamming her face onto the concrete twice, and hitting her with a closed fist. She was later killed in an unrelated homicide.

Baker has said that, in both police use of force cases, her office was prevented from filing charges because police declined to turn over probable cause statements. The move blocked prosecutors from independently reviewing the facts of each case and filing charges.

Some activists have said Smith obstructed justice by refusing to issue the probable cause statements.

Smith said police did not provide the statements because investigators believed there was “no probable cause to conclude the officers broke the law.”

However, he said, the entire file was submitted to federal prosecutors, the FBI and the county prosecutor.

Ultimately the three officers were indicted by grand juries. Brummett and Prichard were charged with a misdemeanor assault. DeValkenaere was charged with first-degree involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action.

Smith’s actions, and the conflict with the county’s top prosecutor have not gone unnoticed among the public, said Riley, of the East 23rd Street association.

She called it an embarrassing, “ugly sight that’s looming over Kansas City.”

“It’s too much name-calling and blaming games, and people are dying in the streets, and there is no accountability with our police department and Jackson County,” she said.

“So the residents, the citizens, the community have a reason to be outraged.”

Third District Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, noting that the police department is not controlled by the city but rather by a board appointed by the Missouri Governor, asked: What structure is there around the department to ensure accountability?

Some in Kansas City have called for an independent review board with the power to subpoena police officers.

Smith said he is listening to the calls for reform: calls for officers to be named publicly after shootings and not placed immediately back on the street, and for independent investigations.

Since the protests this summer, which were sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, the Kansas City Police Department has started calling on the Missouri State Highway Patrol as an outside agency to investigate police shootings.

But Smith has brought forth no policies to require it.

‘A HELL OF A LOT WORSE’

The city’s longtime problem of gun violence has only gotten worse under Smith.

When he became police chief, he said one of his goals was to get the city off of the list of the nation’s 10 most violent cities.

But Smith soon pulled officers and department resources away from the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, also known as KC NoVA, effectively killing the strategy that prosecutors had credited with reducing homicides to a historic low of 82 in 2014.

Baker, a champion of KC NoVA, said since then things have since gotten a “hell of a lot worse.”

In 2017 the city saw 155 homicides. Then 143 in 2018 and 153 in 2019, according to The Star’s data, which includes law enforcement shootings.

This year, the city is on pace for its deadliest year ever with 101 homicides as of Saturday.

Nonfatal shootings have also increased, from 233 in the first half of last year to more than 300 in the first six months of 2020.

“Now I see what happens when it is fully, completely dismantled,” Baker said of KC NoVA. “Like, nobody is even playing around anymore that that exists.”

The strategy has not been replaced with anything, Baker said.

Smith said the change was made on the advice of experts who audited KC NoVA.

“We are always open to making changes if we feel it is in the best interest of reducing violent

crime,” he said.

Instead, Smith said, the department was partnering with federal law enforcement on a program - one that has been around since 2001 - to target the most violent offenders.

However, Smith said in late June that the effort has foundered because of the need to switch computer systems and retool their list of offenders.

Also, he said, key leaders involved in the new effort have not been able to meet in person because of the new coronavirus.

In May, Smith wrote in his blog that two-thirds of Kansas City’s living shooting victims are uncooperative with police investigators.

Mark Funkhouser, who served as Kansas City mayor from 2007 to 2011, said blaming the victim is the wrong strategy.

The city’s high homicide rate, he said, is tied to the public’s lack of confidence in police.

“The public wants you to capture bad people. If they see you do it, that actually increases their confidence in their willingness to report stuff,” Funkhouser said. “If they report an issue, a crime, a homicide, a shooting and you don’t respond effectively then they are at greater risk to whoever they snitch on who afflicted them.”

“Gang violence is not a cause of crime - it’s a response,” Funkhouser said. “Young men band together to protect themselves because they don’t have protection from the police.”

A WHITER POLICE DEPARTMENT

When Smith became chief, the police department had 1,328 sworn officers, which included 161 Black officers.

After three years, the force has grown to 1,359 but has three fewer Black officers - 158.

Smith said the police department has worked to develop relationships with youth in the urban core. In February, the department hosted a recruitment fair at the Black Archives of Mid-America in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District.

The department has collaborated with the local Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kansas City to start the Youth Police Initiative. It was designed to bring youth together with police officers to get to know each other, share meals and cultivate better relationships.

Other various efforts such as hosting movies at police stations, providing food and personal care items to needy families should have a positive and lasting impact.

“But it doesn’t happen overnight,” Smith said. “Those things take years to evolve and to move on. If you start today, hopefully we will reap those rewards several years down the line.”

Ossco Bolton, a former member of a Kansas City street gang who now works as a community organizer, helped organize Youth Police Initiative, said he was impressed with Smith’s candor, openness, flexibility and willingness to listen.

“Even when people come harsh, I didn’t see him back down and walk away and I appreciate that,” Bolton said.

Still, today’s Kansas City Police Department is about 11% Black in a city that is nearly 30% Black.

Smith points to other changes he’s made in the department as having made a difference.

Early on, he assigned two community interaction officers to each of the city’s six patrol divisions, reversing a decision by his predecessor.

Some city leaders had praised the move, while others were critical of the assignments as insufficient to make a difference across the city.

Under Smith, and before the current budget crisis, increased funding from the city raised the number of patrol officers by nearly 40, with more 911 call takers and more social workers assigned to each station.

Patrol officers received crisis intervention training to help de-escalate dangerous situations and incidents involving persons with mental health concerns.

Also, Smith disbanded the mounted patrol unit, assigning those officers to answer emergency calls. This freed up officers to transfer to investigative squads, including the homicide unit.

Smith said the recent protests at the Plaza compelled the department to develop a “First Amendment policy,” and re-evaluate how they respond to large-scale demonstrations and public gatherings.

During the protests, photos and videos went viral showing Kansas City police pepper spraying, tear gassing and arresting peaceful protesters. The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office was reviewing one such case.

Several days into the protests, police started giving the demonstrators more space and stopped using tear gas.

“For 30 years, we’ve been trained to tap shields, push people and use batons,” Smith said. “We immediately adapted to the situation while we were out there as it was unfolding, which is pretty unusual for an organization to throw out 30 years of training and just switch all of a sudden.”

Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Kansas City, saying police arresting nonviolent protesters at the Plaza were enforcing unconstitutional “failure to obey” ordinances.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Smith peered out of a fourth-floor window at police headquarters.

Elsewhere in the city that day, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced an ordinance that would ask Kansas City voters to seek local control of the police department.

Also that day, the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association in the city’s historic Northeast issued a letter calling for Smith to resign and saying it was disbanding its neighborhood watch groups.

Below Smith’s window, a church group was on the front steps, hoisting multi-colored signs proclaiming their support for the police department.

Smith soon joined them outside as they prayed.

Returning to his office, Smith paused and reflected.

“I try to do what’s right for the people, this city,” he said. “Am I going to make everyone happy as a leader? I don’t think I am. But you can see, there’s other people that support us.”

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