KANSAS CITY, MO — Public pressure is mounting against Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith amid criticism that he failed to hold his officers accountable for alleged excessive use of force and mistreatment of communities of color.
More than 2,350 citizens have signed a petition calling for his removal. The Kansas City Star called for his resignation in an editorial. And activists urged the board of commissioners that oversees the police department to fire him.
Their complaints against Smith mirror the national movement against police brutality that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police on May 25.
At a recent local police board of commissioners meeting, activists said officers are less responsive to underserved communities and oftentimes escalate calls with violence.
“How can we, as a community, trust the police force when the Chief of Police refuses to hold his officers accountable?” said Winifred Jamieson, a resident of Kansas City, Missouri, garnering applause at the Sept. 29 forum.
The Kansas City Star has previously reported that, under the first three years of Chief Smith’s tenure, his officers have shot and killed twice as many Black men as the first three years of the previous chief. They have also reported on eroding trust in the police department based on the shooting deaths of three Black individuals — Ryan Stokes, Terrance Bridges, and Donnie Sanders.
Another Kansas City resident questioned how effective KCPD’s $255 million budget is in creating a responsive police force.
“When we call for help, they don’t come,” the resident, who didn’t identify herself, said. “When I call for help, they don’t come. So I’m not really sure what these offices are doing on city funding. But that needs to be addressed. We need to definitely fire Rick Smith. And we need to divest from the police. And we need to invest in our community.”
In its July 20 editorial, the Kansas City Star criticized “Smith’s non-relationship with the minority community,” which “he often blames for their lack of faith in his department, as if he played no role in that lack of trust.” It also cited Smith’s defense of officers charged with excessive use of force, refusal to make charging documents public, and reduction of racial diversity amongst officers as unacceptable.
In 2020 so far, Kansas City has seen a spike in crime with 145 homicides, compared to 119 total homicides for 2019 and 99 total for 2018. Rates of shootings, drive-by shootings, and firearm seizures were each higher for the month of August when compared to August of 2019.
The streak of violence has only recently improved following 10-week Operation LeGend, in which the Trump administration deployed over 200 federal agents to Kansas City to fight crime and monitor protests.
Some citizens expressed support for Smith, who has served as police chief since August of 2017.
“Rick Smith has done an outstanding job leading the police department and has the best interest of the citizens and the safety of the city. There is no cause for his removal,” said Kansas City resident Heidi Decker. “Defunding and furloughing officers is not going to bring safety to the city or justice to those that we have lost due to violence. I can only imagine how we would be in where we’d be if it was city-ran versus the board.”
Smith’s supporters also cited his early adoption of using social workers for community policing. In 2018, KCPD secured funding for a social worker to be stationed at each of their six patrol divisions, focusing on early interventions for at-risk youth.
“All of these cities across the country that have decided to remove their chief of police are still a mess. That has not fixed the problem in any of the cities across the country,” said Kansas City resident Erin S.
“Nobody has said, ‘Okay, well now that the chief is gone, we’re going to stop rioting. And we’re going to go back to our daily lives.’ They remove the chief and the problems continue. And now without a leader,” she added.
Smith’s position within the police department seems safe for now. During the meeting, none of the board members responded to public comment or indicated support for the speakers’ calls to remove him. If he were to be removed, the decision would come from a majority vote by the board.
Sergeant Jake Becchina, a Public Information Officer in the Media Relations unit and member of the KCPD for 17 years, is confident in Smith’s work to better the department and community, especially in his changes to the department since the violent summer.
“One of the things chief Smith did was added two homicide detectives to all four of the homicide investigative squads. So they went from six to eight detectives each one . . . So that’s more investigative resources that were put towards that. He also doubled the size of what’s known as the assault squad, and the assault squad investigates aggravated assaults, which is every time somebody gets shot and doesn’t die.”
“We made those two investigative changes, which was a big, that’s a big thing . . . In homicide and in assault, you know, closing a case and bringing somebody responsible to justice is one of the best preventative measures to prevent future occurrences of similar type crimes,” he added.
Becchina firmly stands behind the idea that the public sentiment toward KCPD under Smith’s leadership is largely positive.
“We have a different, a little bit different view in, in our office, in the sense that we see through social media . . . So we get a cross section of all of the undistilled comments towards how people feel about our department. And I would say that it’s probably about 90%, as of right now, since June, positive to negative in the comments, the messages and so on,” he said.
The police department faces other challenges as well, including an 11% budget cut for fiscal year 2021-22, which equates to about $26 million.
At the next Board of Commissioners meeting Oct. 27th, the department’s use of choke holds and no-knock warrants, controversial tactics used by officers that are seen as violent and overly reactionary, is scheduled to be discussed. Amidst the nationwide outcry against police brutality, several other large cities — such as San Antonio, TX and Orlando, FL — have banned these tactics.
“Set up a board that has people that actually live in the communities where you are overly policing, overly arresting, and overly—trying to keep my words nice here. But you are basically acting like a gang,” said activist Sheryl Ferguson as she took the mic.
“Those that believe in freedom, cannot rest until it comes,” Ferguson added.
Editor’s note: Because of the pandemic, we will be featuring stories from our student journalists reporting from other parts of the country periodically.
Originally hailing from Kansas City, Missouri, Elizabeth Gerson is a recent graduate from Stanford University where she received a double-major in Psychology and Communication. She began her career focused in editorial, writing for publications such as The Stanford Daily, mindbodygreen and the San Francisco Chronicle. After her time with the Chronicle’s digital-forward publication, SFGate, she became increasingly fascinated with the intersection of media and technology with a focus in audience development. She has since worked in audience development and content strategy roles at media startups, including Thrive Global and theSkimm, and hopes to continue to understand and shape how audiences are grown and retained across platforms. She plans on working in a space where she can help solve the problem of mismatched incentives between tech and media, and is driven by reshaping the future of the media industry.