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Inside the police board’s blue bubble, KCPD Chief Rick Smith can do no wrong | The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Star Editorial Board, July 13, 2020 05:00 AM

Again on Friday, local civil rights leaders stood on the steps of Kansas City Police Headquarters and demanded Chief Rick Smith’s resignation. But is anyone inside the building listening?

Out here in the world, the organization that Smith runs is the only major police department in the country — the only one in the nation’s 100 largest cities — that a McClatchy survey found had not made even one of the five most basic use-of-force reforms that other departments have made, in some cases long ago. Yet Smith’s fanboys on the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners are only outraged that he’s being criticized.

A no show in the urban core

Many white Kansas Citians say they see Smith as accessible and responsive, but where he’s needed most, in the urban core, he’s a no-show. And the board that’s supposed to be holding him accountable only reinforces that absenteeism by refusing to question it.

After a Star story detailed such a stark racial and geographical divide in reactions to Smith that they seemed to be describing two different people, Police Board President Don Wagner said, “Few good heads of organizations can meet immediately with anyone who asks.” Funny though, how many of the meetings that ever happen take place inside Smith’s comfort zone.

The police chief’s position is that if one of his officers shoots someone, then it must be a justified shooting. And it’s this attitude that has made Kansas City the kind of place where the news that a police officer may have blown an infamous double murder case by sleeping with a witness gets this reflexive response: A Kansas City Police Department spokesman said officials are confident that the officer broke no laws. “If that changes, we would of course conduct an internal investigation.” Without an investigation, what could possibly change it?

County prosecutor ‘out of tools’

Smith’s relationship with the Jackson County prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, is so toxic at this point that she said in an interview, “I’m out of tools.”

“I have tried,” she said. “I have tried, and I don’t want it to look like I’ve totally thrown in the towel, because as long as he’s there, I’m going to work with whoever is there, but I am out of tools. The paradigm becomes, ‘You never charge a police officer and then we can work with you.’ I can’t live in that construct. That is a violation of my duties. It’s a violation of my oath.”

It’s also a violation of the law.

Inside the blue bubble, however, all is well. Could not be better, in fact. The Board of Police Commissioners does no serious oversight, and its five members ask no hard questions. In fact, the whole exercise has the vibe of a high school pep club; if it has a raison d’être at all, it should be renamed the KCPD team-backers.

At last week’s meeting, three commissioners pelted Smith with rose petals and the other two, Cathy Dean and Bishop Mark Tolbert, said little.

Mayor Quinton Lucas recommended that the others read a recent New York Times piece about Minneapolis police “losing control” during the protests after Floyd’s murder, and suggested that we should gratefully “contrast that with the work our department did. And I know now I’ll get hundreds of people angry with me saying that, but frankly, when you look at the protection of human life, the smaller number of injuries we had compared to a lot of American cities … I know there can be critiques, and we will all probably spend months and years reviewing it, but you know, we did a pretty darn good job.” We?

How this lines up with Lucas’ comments to protesters that “the revolution will not be televised,” and “the foundation is rotten,” well, who knows.

Slow to investigate excessive force

As for the reports of excessive use of force during the protests, Smith said the department is reviewing hours and hours of tapes, but boy is that slow going. No doubt it is; policing yourself can take who knows how long.

Lucas also joked that the chief hasn’t applied to become city manager in addition to his other duties because “he figures he has enough people yelling at him.” He commended Smith for his excellent relationship with the acting city manager, and said “all of my colleagues respect the work of this department.”

Since this all-honey-and-no-vinegar approach is at odds with Lucas’ public criticism, it’s not clear what he really wants, or how he thinks change is going to materialize. If the mayor believes he can push Smith out without breaking any glass, he’s wrong. And if he wants both the protesters and the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed him, to think he’s on their side, that’s not happening, either. Which is it?

The reforms Lucas does talk about — allowing minors to file complaints about rough treatment from police, and ending the requirement that such complaints be notarized — are small beer when the whole brewery needs an overhaul.

Commissioner Nathan Garrett’s favorite movie must be “Casablanca.” “I’ve been shocked — shocked,” he says, “at the amount of people that seem to embrace assumptions. It’s frustrating and aggravating. … We have bad eggs, we sure do. We’ve got human beings that don these uniforms. For those out there who have callousness or hatred in your heart, for any race, any person of any size, any shape … (we) need to have a process in place so that when those persons declare themselves, they’re dealt with appropriately.”

Only, there isn’t and they aren’t. Why even have a civilian complaint process if Smith can override it, which he does.

Murders up 40% in 2020

“I have all the confidence we have the right leadership in place,” Garrett said. And for those who don’t share that confidence, they just need to get with the program. Maybe read the chief’s blog, on how the real problem is that the community doesn’t cooperate with the department. Surely blaming the victim will start working at some point.

Wagner said, “I’ve known Rick Smith for a long time,” and know that he’s helped raise a lot of money for “equipment they’d not otherwise have” that’s “really helped to reduce the crime.”

Sorry to interrupt this beautiful dream, but out here in this world, murders are up 40% over last year’s already terrible loss of life. In the blue bubble, though, it’s nothing but blue heaven.

“Sadly, homicides are occurring at a record pace in many cities, including Kansas City,” Wagner allowed. But “Chief Smith has made it his duty to improve this department by using best practices that have proven effective in other parts of the country.” For instance, the weekly shoot reviews imported from Milwaukee. Only, in Kansas City, how that works is that police officials just go around and state what’s already known about shootings. There too, nobody questions anything.

“We have a nationally recognized police chief and an outstanding department,” Wagner said, but “one horrible crime in Minneapolis turned Kansas Citians against their police officers who protected them. Crowds turned out, hundreds. Some were peaceful and meaningful, but others armed with anger, hate and guns. They spat obscenities and hurled rocks, bottles frozen like granite, causing concussions, gashes and horror.”

Unarmed Black men have been killed right here, Commissioner, including Terrance Bridges and Ryan Stokes, but the pain of their families isn’t on your list of what to worry about.

No, here are the real victims: “The men and women of our police department are good people who’ve been brutally criticized in the media and by, if you count them, a few individuals in the public,” Wagner said.

Crime rate bad for KC business

The complete erasure of the experience of Black Kansas Citians underlines the need for reform. And unless you think “No. 5 in gun murders and with no plan to go anywhere but up” is a winning new motto for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, business leaders need to think again, too.

There’s an old 1940s movie, “The Enchanted Cottage,” about a soldier who was disfigured in the war and the plain housekeeper who takes care of the cottage where he’d been planning to spend his honeymoon before his injury ended the engagement.

While he’s there in the cottage, moping around and biting the housekeeper’s head off, they begin to care about one another. Slowly, they become beautiful in one another’s eyes, and start to think that the cottage must be magic. Of course, spoiler alert, it’s love that’s made them see past their scars. Which made for a happy ending for Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire.

But the police board’s refusal to see things as they are outside their enchanted bubble isn’t even good for the Kansas City Police Department itself.

‘Like Ferguson never happened.’

Baker said that as the police chief sees it, “you’re 100% with us or 100% against us. They just cannot step out of these extreme kinds of thinking. So that means I have to be in the villain club. I’m not a 100% supporter? I must be a villain, then. And it’s just exhausting. And if I’m exhausted, I can’t imagine how exhausted the protesters must be.”

Smith’s inability to pivot “even a little bit” only made the protests worse, as Baker sees it: “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to say that when people are on the Plaza in mass numbers, protesting use of force, maybe you should not show excessive force. It was bizarre. It was like Ferguson never happened.”

In the land that time forgot, none of Smith’s alleged supervisors are even trying to pull him into this century. His enablers on the board, the mayor included, are also responsible for his failures. And they, even more than Smith himself, stand between Kansas City and any hope of reform, since they’d choose someone as much like him as possible as our next chief.