August 26, 2014

In major emergencies, police say, state line shouldn’t be a barrier

Missouri has enacted a new law allowing law enforcement agencies here to forge mutual aid agreements with their Kansas counterparts. If Kansas lawmakers give their blessing, too, agencies across the area could respond or assist each other during “critical incidents” like the recent shooting at the Jewish Community Center.

When lives are at stake in a major emergency, the state line has proven to be a hindrance when police agencies respond.

A new Missouri law aims to remove that impediment, but not until the Kansas Legislature approves a similar measure.

Historically, agencies within a state, like police and sheriff’s departments, have esablished mutual aid agreements so they can assist each other in the event of large-scale emergencies.

Part of Missouri Senate Bill 852, signed into law last month by Gov. Jay Nixon, allows Missouri law enforcement agencies in the Kansas City area to forge mutual aid agreements with their Kansas counterparts.

If Kansas lawmakers give their blessing, too, agencies across the area could respond or assist each other during “critical incidents” like the shooting last spring at the Jewish Community Center or a shooting several years ago at the Ward Parkway shopping center.

The agreements also would cover terrorist threats or any situation that may cause loss of life.

The law applies to Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Miami counties in Kansas and Jackson, Clay, Platte, Cass and Ray counties in Missouri.

SWAT and bomb teams require several minutes before they are ready to deploy, so this legislation is especially important for rapidly developing situations like an active shooter, said Capt. Tye Grant of the Kansas City Police Department.

During the 2007 shooting at the Ward Parkway shopping center, Leawood officers were in the building tracking the shooter. Had they found the suspect first, they may not have had the legal authority to act. Grant said mutual aid between Kansas and Missouri is crucial because resolving an active shooter situation quickly is important to saving lives.

“It helps get a critical situation over sooner rather than later,” he said.

Parkville Police Chief Kevin Chrisman said smaller cities like his would benefit the most. It’s unlikely that Parkville officers would assist in a Kansas City, Kan., emergency because doing so would leave the city unprotected, he said.

But if something major were to happen off Interstate 435 in Parkville, Kansas officers might be able to respond more quickly than city police.

“Law enforcement should be thinking beyond the home front,” Chrisman said. “We want to feel safe and secure.”

Mutual aid with Kansas is important for ensuring enough manpower during an emergency, said Belton Police Capt. Don Spears.

Belton’s city limits are less than two miles from the Kansas border, and while the city is developing north near Kansas City, the south and west remain rural.

“We may not use it often, and hopefully not at all,” he said, adding. “It just makes good sense.”

Missouri Rep. Ken Wilson and State Sen. Will Kraus sponsored the Missouri bill because, they said, it would make the Kansas City area safer.

“In the world we live in, I’m not afraid of anything in particular, but we’re very reactionary,” said Wilson, who represents northern Platte and Clay counties. “I want to make sure we can get the help we need when we need it.”

Kraus, who represents part of Jackson County including Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs, said allowing Kansas officers to assist in Missouri is crucial, especially if local officers are tied up with another incident.

“Sometimes it can save lives if a cop from across the state line can act and protect our citizens,” he said.

Independence Police Chief Tom Dailey was the critical incident commander during the 2004 tornado that swept through the two Kansas Citys and was a venue commander at the 1996 Olympics in Georgia when a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park killed one person and injured more than 100.

Dailey said that during a large-scale incident like a terrorist attack, it’s vital that area departments, regardless of state boundaries, be able to work and act together.

“There’s a gold hour after a critical incident that is absolute chaos,” he said. “You have to have adequate resources in that first hour.”

Independence SWAT and WMD (weapons of mass destruction) teams wouldn’t be deploying in Kansas very often, he said. But if something was happening on both sides of the state line, like threats at The Legends shopping area in Wyandotte county and at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, departments should be allowed to back each other up.

Lenexa Police Sgt. Fred Farris, board president for the Kansas City Metro Tactical Officers Association, said departments already spend a lot of time training and working together.

Joint training exposes departments to different situations, but it also ensures that departments understand each other.

Through the Mid-America Regional Council, officers from the two Kansas Citys, Independence, Lenexa, Leavenworth, Olathe, Overland Park and Shawnee form the Kansas City Metro Disaster Tactical Response Team, a 215-member joint SWAT operation — including commanders and tactical medics.

Over the last five years, said Erin Lynch of the Mid-America Regional Council, the team has had 18 training events and spent $156,098 from federal homeland security funds.

The team also responds to real-life events, but the new legislation firms up the legal authority to do so.

Keith Faddis, the regional council’s director of public safety communications, said metro departments have spent millions of dollars to build joint radio systems, so the ability to communicate across lines is already there.

Declaring it legal for departments to respond on either side of the state line makes all that joint training and spending worth it, Farris said.

“We built all these things into place,” he said. “The final component is authorizing the law enforcement.”

The tactical officers’ group lobbied for the Missouri legislation and Farris said it will be talking to Kansas lawmakers about the issue so a bill can be introduced in the next session.

No such bill was brought up this year in Kansas, and Rachel Whitten, spokeswoman for Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, said it’s hard to gauge what kind of support the concept would have next year.

Kansas Rep. Barbara Bollier, whose Johnson County district borders Missouri, said she supports the concept of interstate mutual aid, but she’d have to research any proposal before giving full support.

“Because Missouri has passed (the bill), we certainly need to look into it,” she said.

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