South of the Missouri River in Kansas City, violent and major property crimes occur so often that a resident will be victimized, on average, once a decade.
Just across the state line into suburban Leawood, however, that threat nearly disappears. Reg Cordry and his family have lived in different parts of Leawood for more than a quarter-century and have never been burglarized, never been vandalized, never been the victim of any crime.
This blanket of security helped propel Leawood to second place overall in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburban quality of life.
Certainly, Leawood has plenty to offer as a place to live. The Star compared local suburbs in nearly two dozen statistical measures, and Leawood finished in the top 10 in all types of school performance, in neighborhood stability and charm, and in recreational amenities such as outdoor concerts, seniors programs and golf courses.
But it’s the Johnson County city’s safety that stands out.
The state line corridor on the Missouri side is not exactly a criminal hotbed, but Leawood’s rate of violent and property crimes is one-fifth of Kansas City’s side over to Wornall Road, from 75th Street to Interstate 435.
Even in suburbia, Leawood’s lack of lawlessness is eye-popping. Of four local suburbs that have borders with Kansas City stretching 10 miles or more, Leawood’s rate of property crimes is half what it is in Grandview, Raytown or Gladstone.
So when Cordry, a real estate appraiser who lives south of 103rd Street, goes walking at night along dark patches of streets without streetlights, he’s not worried. And occasionally when he goes away for the weekend and accidentally leaves a door unlocked, he’s not concerned.
"Crime is something I never really think about, period," he says. "It’s a comforting feeling."
Why is Leawood so safe?
A big part of it is that Leawood simply does more police patrolling than other cities do.
Tough traffic cops
It’s a Wednesday morning and Leawood’s Municipal Court is in session. The docket is filled with hundreds of cases. But nearly all involve the same thing - a motorist being stopped by Leawood’s patrol officers.
First up, a speeding ticket. Then someone with an expired license tag. Then a failure to show insurance. Then another speeder. And on and on, for a couple of hours. Many of the cases are filled with tales of shock and frustration.
Martin Tenorio was crossing the state line along 151st Street on his way to work in Overland Park when he was caught going 49 mph where the limit is 35. "I know usually there’s a police officer there every other day, but I was in a hurry," he says.
Durrel Harper was trying to find his way west from Grandview to the Incred-A-Bowl bowling complex out south one night, but he got lost, so he sped up to 50 mph on Mission Road to make up time. "I’d never driven Mission Road before. I didn’t know there’d be a cop there," he says.
Indeed, Leawood’s police have a long-standing reputation for stopping cars coming through town. It even dates back decades to when Police Chief Sid Mitchell was growing up in south Kansas City and attending Center High School.
"I was scared to death to come across the state line because you’d get stopped for going a mile over the speed limit," Mitchell says. And all these years later, he insists one thing hasn’t changed: "We’re tough on traffic."
To be sure, Leawood can concentrate on traffic because the city has several inherent advantages in fighting murders, assaults, robberies, burglaries and other major criminal activity. It’s a narrow city with only a handful of major east-west through streets, so it’s easier to patrol. Its residents are relatively affluent, so lots of homes have alarm systems. And the neighborhoods are well-maintained, so there are hardly ever any abandoned homes to attract criminal activity.
"The economic status of a suburban community is conducive to less crime," says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
In Leawood, although the city has a big government budget for its size, it doesn’t load up on police protection - The Star found Leawood ranked only slightly above average among local suburbs in the number of police officers per capita.
It only seems like it has more officers. That’s because Leawood’s patrols are busier and more visible than those in other communities.
The police department averages about 12,000 tickets a year, producing the bulk of the $1.5 million the city collects in fines. That amount is double what similarly sized Gladstone or Liberty collect and one-third more than what neighboring Prairie Village collects.
Also, Leawood police tend to put close to 40,000 miles on their patrol cars each year trolling the neighborhoods. That amount is about one-fifth more than Kansas City’s average patrol car.
"A police car will probably drive down every residential street in a 48-hour period," Leawood Police Sgt. Tayne Smith says.
Mitchell points to additional neighborhood patrols as a reason the number of burglaries dropped by two-thirds the past two years.
"If they feel we’re out there and could run across them, hopefully that keeps some of them out of here," the chief says.
A restrictive history
But being out there and making lots of traffic stops has, over the years, earned Leawood another kind of reputation.
Earlier this decade, the American Civil Liberties Union singled out Leawood and a few other suburbs in a report accusing them of racial profiling.
In Leawood’s case, the report showed a much higher proportion of minorities received tickets than the proportion of minority drivers who live in or drive near the city. But Mitchell blasted the ACLU’s research. It didn’t, for instance, take into account statistics showing a much higher proportion of African-Americans are arrested for crimes than the proportion of African-Americans living in the city, which means some African-American must be coming into the city to commit crimes.
The ACLU has conceded its study was limited. Still, the ACLU’s allegation revived a stigma that has long dogged Leawood -- the city has been seen by some as insensitive toward minorities and even as holding a "keep out" attitude toward outsiders. That image wasn’t helped when Leawood city workers - none of them city residents - were found betting on Kansas City’s largely African-American murder toll.
Over the years, Tom Leathers tracked several other examples as publisher of The Squire suburban newspaper before he died in September.
He remembered when Leawood was originally developed, its neighborhoods included restrictive covenants against some ethnic and religious groups. When its first neighborhoods were designed, parks were not included because they might attract people from other cities.
He remembered, too, when a bridge along 89th Street - one of the entry points into Leawood from Kansas City - collapsed, the city chose not to rebuild it. And when 95th Street was picked as a major thoroughfare that needed widening, every Johnson County suburb went along with it except Leawood, which held out for two decades.
"The way they operated was a pattern to keep outsiders out of Leawood," Leathers said in an interview before his death. "They didn’t want anyone to come through."
However, Leathers felt that the city’s merits outweighed its faults. He made it his home.
As he was fond of saying, "It’s a wonderful place to live."