Q&A: Chief Rick Smith, KCPD

The police chief in a city troubled by violent crime addresses realistic responses and reasons to be hopeful, an outlines an agenda for engaging the business community to alter the balance on a quality-of-life issue.

Q: We hear from a great many business owners that the city has to do much more to address the crime problem and a national reputation for violence. Where do those efforts begin?

A: I’ve been going around saying this for a long time: This is not just a police problem. We could lock up everyone, and that’s not going to change the dynamics of crime in Kansas City. There has to be involvement from everybody.

Q: Homicide numbers get most attention, but what about crime across the board? Is there a perception within the business community of what the role of the police should be with respect to prevention vs. after-the-fact investigation?

A: Obviously, we spend the vast majority of our efforts after the crime happens. We have efforts to prevent the crime, but that’s not solely a police issue, either. Anybody can have the security system,
anybody can have the lights, anybody can take items off their front seat and put them in their trunk so no one can see them. Which are a vast majority of our quality-of-life issues, your car getting broken into,
things like that. Prevention is a piece. For 30 years I’ve been on the job, we’ve been talking about here’s what you can do to not be a victim of crime. Does that mean people will listen to us? That’s always my question. If we send that message, are we going to get some benefit out of it, because we’ve said it
time and time again. But I can walk into that parking garage right there and we can just start looking in windows, and you can see laptops, $500 handbags, and all that separates that is a piece of glass that thick, and everyone thinks it’s a safe. It’s not a safe and it takes only a rock, a brick or a stick to break that window and get those items. I heavily rely on the prevention piece as being a personal responsibility piece. Does the police department try to give parameters for how that works? Do we do the safety classes, the awareness classes, the crime-prevention and crime reduction through environmental design? We do all that in the community. The idea is, we want to pass some of that responsibility to the individual,
put some effort into crime prevention. Not only for your property but for yourself.

Q: The metrics, what are the indicators that are most important to you for keeping watch on gun crimes?

A: Some of the metrics have changed. It’s including shots fired, it’s including guns we’re recovering. Just today, we were talking with Rutgers University, about our resist arrests, that means people fighting us as we arrest them, going steadily up every year. So we look at that matrix. We look at “Is it getting more dangerous for us to do our jobs?”

Q: Is that the Ferguson effect?

A: I don’t see it. I see it just the opposite. I see our neighbors being very supportive of Kansas City. For the 30 years I’ve been here, this police department has worked on community contacts for a long time.

Q: We’ve heard for years about root causes, the social factors like unemployment and the lack of jobs. We haven’t seen job growth like this in probably a generation.  And yet, the crime stats don’t seem to sync with the opportunities that are available to do something other than stick a gun in somebody’s face.

A: I agree. But the dynamics have changed. I would ask you to research this. What was crime in 1932? The country was at its worst level across the board then, correct? I don’t think we have crime today like we had then. There are times when you can look at, is unemployment tied specifically to crime? Everyone says that’s a factor, I’m not saying it’s not a factor. Lack of education, lack of two-parent homes, lack of
value of human life, how that all plays into it in various proportions.

Q: Business owners say there is labor supply with no access to the jobs. But there’s not a whole lot that can be done about those by law enforcement. What can be done?

A: I think we’re aware. I think that’s the really good thing about cops, they are very aware. Let’s take the broken windows theory. We know we’re in a neighborhood and see that, our cops are great about let’s
get the city out here to board that up, let’s see if we can get somebody out to mow the grass, get this cleaned up because it’s becoming a problem and we don’t want it to occur. Our cops work on that at a very basic level. But are we changing how education works? Are we changing employment systems?
No, of course not.

Q: How responsive is the city to calls?

A: We’ve had, in my tenure, a great relationship with the city. Very responsive.

Q: Clearance rates. What are you seeing there that either gives you hope or cause for concern?

A: We are seeing an upward trend overall with crimes. We don’t have 2018 numbers yet, but I will tell you in homicide, we saw 73 percent clearance, the highest rate we’ve had. So we have seen some of our
clearance rate go up. But obviously, there is a trend we have to correct; that is still too many violent crimes, murder, rape, aggravated assault, a lot of which are gun crimes. 

Q: What impact do changes in data analytics have for you?
A: We’re doing a big project with Rutgers University called risk-terrain modeling. We will be kicking it off this year, which will stack the environmental factors and crime together to see if we can make a difference by looking at those environmental factors. There’s a predictable piece to it, looking not only at history but what they think are going to be the most violent areas. 

Q: On property crime, that’s where most people are going to experience criminal activity at a much higher rate. What are you seeing?

A: Property crimes, I will tell you, it’s may sound cynical, but it’s because of the reporting. You get your lawn mower stolen. Half the people I know don’t make a property-crime report because they think
it’s more hassle than it’s worth. They spend more time on the report than buying a new lawn mower. We have a hard time gauging whether we’re getting actual numbers. I bet you the numbers are much higher
than what I’m seeing here. For the last four years, it looks pretty consistent. 

Q: Back to clearance rate. What do you see as the challenges to improve those for property crimes?

A: Look, we have an abundance of crimes. You’re talking 22,000 crimes a year. We have a nice number of property detectives, but they can’t handle that. Our whole department, if we gave everyone a case—there’s a capacity here, I think that’s a challenge for the detective work vs. the amount of crime. Again, a lot of these are crimes of opportunity. What can displace property crimes? Tech, cameras, things
like that can have a significant impact on property crimes. I also think there are chances to reduce that.

Q: With the budget constraints and tightening of officer numbers on the force, how big an impact is that having?

A: At one time in my career, we were close to 1,500 officers. We’re at about 1,290, under 1,300. Yes, I think it does make a difference. We traveled to New York City, and they told us about the benefits of their
neighborhood policing program and having officers invested in the community, it built trust on other angles. People who wouldn’t normally come forward and tell us the truth will now come and talk to New York cops. They are crediting that for their clearance rates going up and curtailing crime. My point is, we are so strapped right now with trying to maintain the 911 calls for services. We don’t have those officers to have the community ties that we want to create.

Q: For the business owners considering employee safety and security, then their own property security, what do you see as the greatest opportunities for business to help on the preventive side? 

A: I do think—you’re going to think this is silly, but I think the businesses can be good neighbors, I think they can be anchors for their neighborhoods, I think they can be leaders for their neighborhoods. Not many businesses get invested in where they are. They are so busy running their business that
they are not invested with their neighbors or their partners or the Downtown Council or the Crossroads District, or wherever they are. Becoming invested makes them part of the neighborhood. My tag line is always that stronger neighborhoods always have less crime. If businesses were to invest in their communities as much as they invest in their business contacts, I think we’d have a stronger city.

Q: What gives you encouragement about how business can make a difference?

A: Here’s a map of hot-spot policing for violent crime. Looking at data from one year to the next, you can see the reductions. We don’t see much along Independence Avenue, we see greater intensity in some
places. Do you know why that’s such a gap showing reductions on Prospect Avenue? That’s where they put in a new grocery store. What I’m saying is, I think economic development has an impact, if you’re looking at things like what is there compared with what was there before. What it has now is an anchor business that people want in their neighborhood that’s doing a great job creating an environment where people are not going to commit crime. But based on real data, this is what were looking at.

Q: For individuals and homeowners, how much of a tie-in with the crime that affects small business?

A: I think a lot. Crimes of opportunity, right? A business has a parking lot full of cars that get broken into because it’s there for the criminal, sitting right there. I think there’s a lot of correlation, and I think a
lot of the exact same simple steps that you would use as a resident, if you apply to your small business, would make a difference. Good lighting, good security, saying to your neighbor, ‘Hey if my door is open at night would someone please call me and let me know before someone walks in?’ All the good things we do in a neighborhood. Those simple steps that we do every day, we just need to apply them across the board, whether it’s the business or the residence. I would say the business offers opportunity for tech, because I think there’s more money, or there could be more money there for that. So there are more opportunities for cameras. Even some businesses are now doing their own license-plate readers, there’s Ring doorbell for homeowners, there is more sophisticated surveillance for the businesses.

Q: Is there anything that can be done to promote a greater level of engagement between the business community and the department?

A: We try to do that through our CIOs, our community interaction officers at the station, we try to build those contacts. Some businesses, we have great success, some we don’t hear from much at all. Blue
Valley industrial, for example. We’ve been involved there for 30 years, Some business groups have embraced us. Others have not. But I would say if your business group is interested, give us an invite. I’ll bet you’ll have someone show up.

Q: What’s been the reluctance of those who haven’t?

A: Maybe they just never thought of it. Maybe they never thought of the positive outcome that can come from that relationship. But I will tell you, in our  strongest neighborhoods in Kansas City, our  relationship is strong. We attend neighborhood meetings, we’re on e-mail chains with them, they have phone numbers of officers. And those kinds of connections are instant.

Q: What about the roles of other components of the criminal justice system?

A: As a police department, our goal is to identify perpetrators and make sure we bring them to justice. We are just one piece of the criminal justice system. The jail does affect things. When the capacity of the jail is such that, right now, it mostly is housing violent offenders, that really leaves a lot of opportunity for property-crimes offenders. 

Q: Other thoughts?

A: We have to get more people engaged, even if it’s at the lowest level, even if it’s sending your business rep to the homeowners or association meeting. Even if it is calling one of our CIOs to do a security
assessment. Even if it is doing safety training for employees who walk out into a dark parking lot. There has to start being some engagement. There has to be discussion among the business leaders in this city
that we do not want to tolerate this city as having the reputation for violence that it has. As I’ve said, my goal, said it 100 times, is to get the city off the 10-most violent list. If I was a business owner and I’m
looking at what helps me project Kansas City, what helps with new clients, what helps bring in new business, and every time someone says, ‘Kansas City, isn’t that place so violent?’ it never helps us. You and I live here and know where to go where we won’t be exposed to violence. But the outsider who hears Kansas City is one of the most violent cities in America? That does  not send a message of welcome to anybody else. I need the business community to  start taking that seriously. What we want is to welcome new business. What we want is to build our businesses and build our city, but we have to get our arms around this crime issue.