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KCK police chief reflects on a career that’s about to conclude

Updated: 2013-12-01T01:36:21Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Rick Armstrong is proud of his department and the city it serves.

But as he nears retirement and the end of a 35-year career with his hometown police department, Armstrong remembers a time not too many years ago when he had serious doubts about his law enforcement future in a fading and troubled city.

Residents were moving out in droves, the department budget was being cut and crime was rising.

Armstrong didn’t give up, and neither did the city whose renaissance has become the envy of the metropolitan area.

“Back in the 1980s, people drove around Kansas City, Kan.,” Armstrong said. “Now it’s a destination.”

The department, too, has become a model that leaders from other cities emulate. Armstrong, who became chief in 2010, said he has been invited to more than 40 cities around the country to teach other officers. It has allowed him to see what others are doing.

“I don’t know of another agency doing a better job of policing,” he said.

In 1995, Kansas City, Kan., recorded more than 2,000 violent crimes, including a record 72 homicides.

Last year, there were about 850 violent crimes and 22 homicides — the lowest number of killings in 42 years.

The effort that led to such a decrease is in no small part due to work Armstrong began while working on his master’s degree thesis on community policing and grant requests he wrote while still a sergeant.

From that beginning, Armstrong said, the department has developed a successful community policing partnership with the city’s residents and business community.

“We’re exponentially more positive, more productive and more interactive than when I started in 1978,” he said.

Building trust between the community and department did not happen overnight and could not have been possible without the community embracing the idea, he said.

“The public takes an active role in sharing issues and concerns,” Armstrong said. “We have so many outstanding community leaders. We’re so successful because we’re all in this together.”

Paul Soptick Jr., president of Wyandotte Countians Against Crime, said Armstrong is a “straight shooter” who has helped build a rapport between the department and the city’s neighborhood associations.

“He has impressed the dickens out of me,” Soptick said. “It’s refreshing to be able to call him Rick when I see him. He is not only the chief, he is also a friend.”

Armstrong’s police career began right after he graduated from Harmon High School in 1978, when he joined the cadet program. The program enlists local kids who are paid as police department interns while attending college.

When they turn 21, they can reapply to become officers and must graduate from the police training academy. The department now has five young people in the program.

Armstrong initially aspired to become an FBI agent and saw the program as a way to obtain police experience and a bachelor’s degree needed to apply to the FBI.

But after becoming an officer, those plans changed.

“I really fell in love with the job,” he said.

Eventually, in 1998, he attended the FBI’s prestigious national academy for police commanders. While in Washington, he met up with former high school classmate Janet Murguia, who worked for the Clinton administration and arranged a behind-the-scenes White House tour.

By then, the Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County governments had merged, forming the Unified Government that Armstrong said set the stage for the economic growth that has revitalized the community with projects like Kansas Speedway, the Sporting Park soccer stadium and a myriad collection of retail and dining establishments.

“What a testament to a city that re-invented itself,” he said.

The department, too, has re-invented itself in a number of ways.

It has embraced the idea of proactive problem-solving that involves police working with social service agencies to address the underlying problems that often lead to criminal behavior such as lack of education, unemployment and mental health issues.

One of the biggest changes Armstrong has seen is the educational level of officers. When he started, only a handful of department members had bachelor’s degrees. Today, the chief and all of the department’s command staff have master’s degrees, and the department has incentive programs to encourage officers to obtain college degrees.

The department has also adopted the use of technology and crime analysis software to develop strategic ways to not only solve crimes but also to identify trends and predict where crimes might occur.

Kansas City, Kan., has also developed strategies for helping troubled juveniles and services for victims of crimes.

Armstrong said he has been honored to serve as police chief and is proud to be from Wyandotte County. He also said he is fortunate to have the support of his wife and two daughters.

“What I’ve done wouldn’t have been remotely possible without them,” he said.

Former Lenexa police chief Ellen Hanson has been named interim police chief for Kansas City, Kan.

And although he is leaving the police department, Armstrong is not going away.

He has been hired to head a new in-house police department for the Kansas City, Kan., School District. He will start the new job early next year, working for the same school district where he was educated and held his first job.

“I was a school crossing guard in second grade,” he said.

Plans are for the new force to employ about 30 officers who will have the same training and certification as city police.

“It’s a different approach that will enhance school safety and security,” Armstrong said. “It’s an exciting opportunity.”

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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