There is much to say on policing, generally, and as applied to Kansas City, specifically, both in terms of front line observations and experiences, and on what lies ahead. Policing has been a part of my life for three decades, from my beginnings as a small-town police officer to being a Missouri State Trooper, state prosecutor, FBI Special Agent, federal prosecutor and, finally, having the great privilege of serving the past four years as a Kansas City, Missouri Police Commissioner. Having served with, in and among law enforcement agencies and officers all around the world, I say without reservation that the men and women of the KCPD are some of the finest officers and staff I have ever known. This city is blessed, but it is not hyperbole to suggest that excellence and good fortune is at risk.
Today, media and politicians—most of whom know nothing about the profession of policing—attack the profession, its funding, training and personnel. The criminal actions of a police officer in Minneapolis set ablaze a firestorm that swept the country and upended much of the progress and relationships enjoyed by police and the communities they serve. Suddenly, law enforcement at large was labeled and viewed—by many with no prior personal experience suggesting it—as a racist, corrupt, ‘good ol’ boy’ network deserving of total overhaul or, even more nonsensically, abolishment. Many officers left, while others expedited their retirement, all in a desire to leave behind the chaos and perceived disdain that surrounded them. And, equally concerning, it has gotten much harder—impossible with reduced funding—to fill the void with qualified recruits. When young, I dreamed of being a police officer. Is that the dream of today’s youth—particularly in light of this moment? For most of us, our most consequential judgment is on display after hours, weeks or even months of deliberation and thought; the most consequential judgment of a police officer is on display in a split second, when it matters most. And at that second is where the quality of our candidates is laid bare.
As Commissioner, I fought against attacks on KCPD’s funding and was regrettably compelled to file a lawsuit against the City for brazenly and deceptively taking back over $40 million dollars of allotted and adopted funding, potentially crippling key programs and personnel. This lawsuit resulted in the circuit court agreeing with the Police Commission and ordering the restoration of the funds. But the battle is not over. We must fight to ensure KCPD remains properly funded and able to restore the personnel lost at an alarming rate. For anyone sitting the sidelines, believing this surely will not affect them, you’re wrong. It will and it does.
The work of protecting our community is high stakes and laced with danger. Officers’ decisions, right or wrong, carry enormous consequences. While some may attempt to “re-imagine” policing, crime fighting is an ugly business, and one populated with folks bent on community harm long after the talkers have gone to bed. At the same time, we must hold officers to a high standard, while also giving them our respect and deserved support. We can do both.
Tremendous change has permeated my three decades in law enforcement: changes in laws, tactics, awareness and outcomes. Law enforcement must always change, listen to and appreciate its communities’ concerns. And, critically, be diligent at avoiding the insular hardening of ‘us vs. them’ that can rob one’s ability to be better. But to suggest, as some in public office and print repeatedly have, that justice and peace for our crime-ridden communities lies in “re-imagining” policing, passing vague proclamations, and rewriting manuals is to be more interested in political theatre than serious leadership. Yes, community relationships are critical to our success. But if we continue to lay the plight of our troubled neighbors at the feet of the police, we’re going to remain trapped in this cycle of blame while the people who need them most go unserved.
While many surely wished for my permanent exit, I won’t retire from supporting law enforcement, because the security of this community depends on it. That’s why I’m supporting Kansas City Community Organized Police Support (KC COPS). It’s a new organization which is throwing their weight behind our officers and the communities that rely on them. KC COPS is committed to speaking out against policies and persons bent on making our city less safe and less accountable. We need to turn back from the path that has led to the ruin of many great American cities, realize it’s at our door, and do something about it. While admiring of the efforts of many to bend the arch of our existence, tonight, we get this world as it is, not as we wish it to be. And that world still needs people willing to mind the gap between order and chaos. KC COPS stands ready to support those who do.