They went after his reputation. They went after his job. They went after his budget. But on Friday, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith leaves office on his own terms, head held high.
And judging from his exclusive exit interview with The Heartlander, Smith rides off into retirement distinctly unscarred for all the flak he took. It’s apparently a special kind of bullet-proof vest he wears.
“I think that it’s nothing different than [what] other police chiefs faced around the country,” he said of the barrage of criticism leveled at him from the media and the left. “I think there’s a media cycle and sometimes you get wrapped up in that. I think that’s part of it.”
Perhaps. Police across the country have taken it on the chin plenty of times the past couple of years, certainly. But few have as often and as chronically as Smith, who steps aside after five years as chief and some 34 years in the department.
Mayor Quinton Lucas and a city council majority last year tried to claw back $42 million in police funding – after the budget had already been approved – for the city manager to use in unspecified “crime prevention” activities. The move – which came as most of the country abandoned the police defunding movement – might have devastated policing in Kansas City but was blocked by a judge as illegal.
Meanwhile, the left and the media pilloried Smith for not reacting more to their liking to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, or to police-involved shootings in KC. Yet, the chief strikes a chord of lamentation, not condemnation, on his way out.
“I wish the sentiment was different, because people were calling for good things in policing, and this department had engaged in many of those things before people called for them,” he said. “And you know, whoever leads this department, whether it’s me or whatever, the commitment of the men and women of this department to go out and do the right thing to protect the city has been there. And it remains here today. I think that’s what should be championed.
“It’s always easy to be negative on something, and it’s sometimes more difficult to look at the positive sides. But this police department has done many positive things that seem to be ignored.”
One positive, he notes: Whereas violent crime surged nationwide in 2020, it ebbed the following year in KC, bucking the national trend.
“Many cities continued to see an increased violent crime rate after that historic year. They again saw historic numbers,” Smith says. “We trended the opposite direction in the following year. So I I believe Kansas City is on a good path. I hope it stays there. We have yet to see how the year plays out, but last year Kansas City was very fortunate in its violent crime rate compared to other cities in America.”
Smith says he believes a vast majority of Kansas Citians “respect and honor” the role that police have in keeping citizens safe. During Black Lives Matter protests at the Country Club Plaza in 2020, for instance, Smith says several thousand protested police – but during those same days of unrest here, 25,000 citizens called 911 for help.
Still, the outgoing chief remains concerned for the future of policing, after the anti-law-enforcement climate of the past few years undercut recruitment.
“Yes, I am concerned,” he said. “I want our officers and our staff here in the police department to feel like they’re supported by the city – by elected officials, by the Board of Police Commissioners, by police command staff. I want them to feel supported. Our people who are dedicating their work life to making the city safer, I want them to feel like they’re supported in that endeavor. And I think it makes a difference.”
Smith chalked up his problematic relationship with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to “philosophical differences” – such as with the so-called Kansas City No Violence Alliance, KC NoVA.
The prosecutor’s office supported the multi-agency program, which essentially sought to talk violent offenders out of committing crimes and offered them social workers and help with substance abuse, mental health, education and job training. But Smith redirected his department’s efforts, as the National Institute of Justice concluded the program had no discernible effect on the crime rate.
Asked if the prosecutor’s office is sufficiently tough on crime, Smith is conspicuously circumspect – saying only that when federal law enforcers and prosecutors pitched in to fight violent crime during Operation Legend, violent crime went down in the city. The operation was named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro of Kansas City, who was shot and killed while home asleep on June 29, 2020.
“Prosecutions and consequences play a huge part” in reducing crime, Smith said.
Baker’s office declined to weigh in on Smith, but spokesperson Michael Mansur said the prosecutor’s office works with all other police chiefs in the area, and will do so with Smith’s successors.
One of the chief’s biggest supporters, Councilwoman Heather Hall, said in a statement to The Heartlander, “It was an honor working alongside Chief Smith these past years. He is a man of integrity and his leadership will be missed.”
Despite what he called a need for “greater support from our city elected officials” – and the unrelenting brickbats from the media and the left, which took a considerable toll on his family – Smith says he leaves his job feeling highly supported by the department, the Board of Police Commissioners and the citizenry.
“Sometimes, during the most challenging of times is when people come together the best,” he says. “And I really felt like the police department came together to handle what needed to be handled, both during May of 2020 and the pandemic. It’s been a very difficult time in policing, but yet I feel that the men and women of this department have really stood up and done a fantastic job. And the Board of Police Commissioners has recognized that, and I believe they’ve been very supportive of this police department.”
As he leaves the reins to an interim chief while the city conducts a nationwide search for his replacement, Smith said he hopes it’s someone from inside the department.
But when asked why anyone would want the job after the way he’s been treated, the question gives him brief pause. “That is a good question, and I think some people are shying away because of the way police are treated. But I will also say there’s nothing more rewarding than leading a great group of men and women who are dedicated to doing the right things and to making the city safe.”
What will he do in retirement, at age 55? He’s not altogether sure, though consulting work is among several offers he’s been fielding. For now, he says he plans to take some time off, do some fishing, and just be present for his loved ones in ways his job rarely allowed.
“I look forward to spending time with the grandkids. I look forward to not being on the phone during my off time constantly. I plan on being a little more engaged with the family. Hopefully, as they supported me all these years, I’d like to be there for them a little bit more than I have been in the past four years.”
What would he tell Kansas Citians on his way out?
“We have a great city,” the St. Paul, Minnesota native and longtime KC resident says. “Kansas City is a great city. But with all great things, they take effort and they take work to make sure that they remain great. And I hope this city sees the efforts of this police department to achieve that goal, and I hope they support those efforts.”