Word arrived just as Police Chief Terry Zeigler prepared to conduct a promotion ceremony in a packed room at Kansas City, Kan., Police Headquarters.
Another officer had been shot, the second in 10 weeks. This time, bullets felled a captain — Robert Melton.
Zeigler had just eaten lunch with Melton, who had been his usual fun-loving self, laughing and cutting up. Melton had been wearing his bullet-resistant vest. He always wore that vest, Zeigler recalled. With any luck, he would be OK.
Melton’s death that July day plunged the community deeper into what has become a summer of sorrow, anxiety and angst.
As Wyandotte County works toward healing and recovery, government, faith and police leaders are discussing how to prevent future tragedies and bring the diverse community closer together. No one wants to see tension escalate between law enforcement officers and residents. Nor do they want any more names engraved on the memorial to fallen officers.
“These were criminals, or alleged criminals, trying to get away from being captured,” said Monsignor Stuart W. Swetland, the president of Donnelly College on North 18th Street. “These were police officers doing their duty.
“But we have to address, too, why people would resort to that level of violence.”
Melton’s death July 18 happened as the department still mourned the May 9 death of Detective Brad Lancaster, who was shot as he helped investigate a suspicious person near Kansas Speedway. Before Lancaster’s killing, the department had not lost an officer in the line of duty in nearly two decades.
Gunfire has caused other grief this summer, too. In July, the city recorded six homicides — about triple the city’s normal monthly tally — while bullets also wounded more than a dozen people.
And last week the city recorded four homicides in five days. Three people were killed in separate drive-by shootings — a 36-old-woman, a 21-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl.
Too many young people, especially, have been dying violently, community leaders point out. No one, not even longtime community members, can remember a summer as gut-wrenching.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the little over 44 years I’ve been policing here,” said Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash, a former Kansas City, Kan., police officer who nearly had to bury a deputy last year. Miraculously, Scott Wood survived seven bullets robbers fired into him at a Kansas City, Kan., convenience store.
Wood’s wounding, the deaths of Lancaster and Melton, and the July ambushes of police officers in Texas and Louisiana have kept local law enforcement officers on edge for months. In recent weeks, gunfire has damaged at least three unoccupied law enforcement vehicles in the county, and anti-police graffiti recently was spray-painted on the Fraternal Order of Police lodge.
After a sniper killed five officers in Dallas in early July, Zeigler ordered his officers to pair up on patrol for their own safety. Some police who once delayed taking off uniforms after shifts now change swiftly into civilian clothes. At least one commander who used to park a take-home police car in the driveway now hides it in the garage.
“It’s a pretty difficult time in law enforcement right now,” said Ron Miller, a former Kansas City, Kan., police chief who lost two Topeka police officers to gunfire in December 2012 while leading that department.
How long did it take for things to get back to normal in Topeka?
“The reality is, it’s never back to normal,” said Miller, now the U.S. marshal for Kansas. “It’s a new normal.”
The most effective way to promote healing is for the community to support law enforcement, Miller said. And indeed, that has happened, from schoolchildren’s notes to thousands of dollars raised for the Lancaster and Melton families. Residents have hugged officers, displayed blue ribbons and left positive notes on squad cars. Some have picked up officers’ tabs at restaurants. One day a company bought pizza for the entire department.
A Cup on the Hill, the coffee shop just up Minnesota Avenue from police headquarters, posted a sign allowing customers to pay extra to buy officers’ coffee. Even after the sign came down at the end of July, customers kept donating, said manager Jessi Rose Johnson.
“We have a lot of police regulars,” Johnson explained. “They are usually upbeat. You could see their expressions had changed. To see how sad they were … it really struck me.”
Even with the outpouring of community support, pain remains — in the department ranks and, in some cases, among residents who think police still need to work on building mutual respect with the public, especially in the minority community.
Community policing, launched in the city roughly two decades ago, has helped limit community unrest seen elsewhere, some say. So have other initiatives, such as the department’s eliminating its college degree requirement for new hires, which has opened the door for more minority applicants.
But more needs to be done, some residents say.
One pastor points to a recent police standoff outside a home on Parallel Parkway. As a crowd gathered, people chanted at police not to shoot.
“We looked divided and it did more harm than good,” said the Rev. Terry Bradshaw Jr., pastor of St. John’s Temple Church of God in Christ. “It’s going to take unity across the board — blacks, white, rich, poor — to see more positive change on a consistent basis.”
Yet because so many people felt the police department’s pain, unity already has been building, others say.
“I think it (reaction to the deaths) brought the community together,” said Elaine Grisnik, who lives on Strawberry Hill, known for its Slavic heritage. “Everyone is having the same reaction to it and talking about it, whether black or white or Mexican. Everybody thinks this is senseless. Just some kids who didn’t want to go to jail.”
After Melton died, Unified Government Mayor Mark Holland, a Methodist minister, rallied some 40 pastors to hold a citywide day of prayer that Sunday.
“We are in a time right now of uncertainty and brokenness in our community and in our nation and in our world that is completely overwhelming,” he told his congregation at Trinity Community Church.
The community can’t sit still and do nothing, he said.
Opinions on solutions differ, but most agree the challenges are many, run deep and will require diverse and innovative teamwork.
Even though crime citywide has dropped 10 percent in five years, Wyandotte County still routinely posts some of the state’s highest crime rates. In 2015, it ranked worst in Kansas in overall crime and violent crime.
Despite economic and business gains in recent years, poverty rates, education levels and wellness scores all remain unacceptable to community leaders. Too many children still go hungry. Too much blight still exists. Too many people remain unemployed or underemployed.
The police are on the front lines of a complicated battle, Holland said.
“This is a community problem and it ties into a ton of stuff,” he said. “Your head starts to spin when you think about the layers.”
It’s vital that the community help young people with educational and job opportunities, said the Rev. Charles Davis Jr., who serves as a court liaison for people battling legal troubles. Churches, schools, businesses, parents and law enforcement all need to be involved, he said.
“A lot of ideas sit on paper or have been laid on a table, but they need to be acted upon,” Davis said, predicting that the transformation will be slow because the problems are entrenched.
NAACP chapter President Richard Mabion suggests that everyone invest more in prayer, respectful behavior and community engagement with law enforcement.
“I am one of those black leaders who believes it is our responsibility to motivate people to change, to improve their lives, their lifestyles, their engagement with one another,” said Mabion. He hopes to encourage more positive interaction through Fourth Friday events he and other community leaders are planning.
The national narrative on police shooting people, and people shooting police, also must be addressed, some ministers say. Though the incidents have happened far away, they’ve created tension locally.
“Maybe stuff that was kept under wraps before is coming out,” said the Rev. Allen Elsey, whose Rosedale Church ministers to urban youth. “If nothing is talked about, not brought out in the open, we can’t heal from past wrongs, we can’t move forward.”
Heavy publicity of officer-involved shootings nationwide may have encouraged some people to think that shooting a police officer is OK, the Rev. Tony Carter said.
“I want my grandchildren to have a safe place to live,” Carter said. “We have to work together right now in order to assure that happens.”
On a recent summer day, three barbers working at H.T.’s on Parallel Parkway reflected on the recent deaths in their city.
They talked of how police officers and civilians, minorities and whites, immigrants and natives all want the same things in life: to have a decent job and to go home safe every day to their families.
“We are more alike than we are different,” barber Kareem Owens said as clippers hummed in his hand.
The barbers described Lancaster and Melton’s killers as criminals who did “dumb” things, and they dismissed any connection to what had happened in Baton Rouge, La., where a gunman from Kansas City killed three officers and wounded three others a day before Melton’s death in Kansas.
“We don’t have those issues over here,” said the shop’s owner, H.T. Cooperwood.
But as talk turned to their community, they noted that when they were teens, more black youth viewed policing as a potential career. Somehow, after the 1980s, cops went from heroes to villains. That needs to change, they said.
They suggested that the police department be more active in the community. Police should mentor youth, they said.
Told that police already have a mentoring program, they reacted in surprise.
That is a problem, Zeigler admitted.
“I guess I’ve done a pretty crappy job in telling people what we are doing,” he said recently in his police headquarters office.
For an example of building positive interaction with the public, he pointed to surveys he initiated in early 2015. Police officers hand blank survey forms to people after traffic stops or other interactions. The residents can rate officers on friendliness and how well they did their job and send the forms postage-free to headquarters. Last year, attitude and conduct complaints dropped 10 percent, and they are down 20 percent more this year, Zeigler said.
Once a month, an officer reads to children at Parker Elementary School. Other officers regularly play basketball with inner-city youth, including a recent gig at the YMCA on Eighth Street and games two nights a week at a community center. School resource officers speak each month to about 30 high school students as part of a junior police academy that launched in 2010.
The department also does presentations involving its “show car,” a seized and muscled Dodge Charger. In May, police put on a yo-yo show. The department recently unveiled Officer Leo, a lion mascot that resembles the Royals’ Sluggerrr.
And there’s the Our Kids Program, also known as the OK mentoring program. Black officers mentor black urban students while stressing academic achievement, respect for self and others, and community engagement.
Kansas City, Kan., police launched their program in 2011 at Coronado Middle School, and an officer continues to work with the teens after they graduate to Schlagle High School. More than 200 boys now participate.
About 20 recently attended the first Saturday session of the new school year at Coronado. After the boys warmed up shooting baskets, Officer Jonathon Westbrook called them to the stage. Westbrook promised they would become like a family. But to stay involved, the boys had to keep a 2.5 grade point average and maintain good citizenship marks.
“The whole point is to make you successful inside and outside of school,” he told them. “My job isn’t to lock you up. I will if I have to. But my job is to help you … be good fathers, good husbands and good people in the community.”
Eighth-grader Muctaru Dimitri Smith grinned. A returning member of the program, he’d already heard this message — and listened well enough that his mother sent a text to Westbrook saying how proud she was of the man her son had become.
Westbrook believes the program will pay big dividends.
“The urban core isn’t going anywhere, and police officers aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to work together and find that common ground.”
Zeigler thinks some of the uneasiness about police can be eased if people understand why police use force, fire their weapons and take other actions. He thinks it would help if more residents enrolled in the department’s citizens police academy.
“There’s a lot of science and law behind what we do,” he said. “It’s not willy-nilly.”
He recently asked a 17-year-old black teen who had issues with police action around the country to bring 30 to 40 of his friends to police headquarters to experience a driving simulator, a firearms training simulator and a class on traffic stops. Don’t judge our department by police actions elsewhere, Zeigler told the young man. And don’t judge police elsewhere until the facts are clear.
The teen accepted Zeigler’s invitation, though the date remains in flux.
“Police make mistakes,” Zeigler said more recently. “I get that. We should explain to people how we messed up and what went wrong. At same time, if we are not wrong, the community needs to support the police department.”
A recent six-hour standoff outside a convicted sex offender’s home exemplified how the public and police view things differently.
The incident started after U.S. marshals tried to arrest the man for failing to register as a sex offender. A standoff soon started, and Kansas City, Kan., police sent in tactical officers and set up a perimeter.
Word of the standoff along busy Parallel Parkway soon appeared on Facebook. A crowd gathered.
“No, don’t shoot!” some members chanted at officers. “The community says no.”
At one point, Maj. Solomon Young walked into the crowd and pleaded for calm.
“We don’t need to argue, we don’t need to fight … ,” he said in a tearful plea. “No one inside that perimeter wants to go in there and take someone’s life. You’ve got to understand, there is no thrill, no victory in taking a life.”
Bradshaw later praised Young as “tremendous.” But he complained that other officers would not respond to questions from the crowd, and the officers took video of the crowd taking video of them.
“It caused the situation to become uncomfortable and very tense,” Bradshaw said.
Zeigler said his officers were following protocol, which says only the senior officer on scene addresses the public.
Others in the community didn’t like that police backed off without an arrest, Zeigler said. Complaints poured in, he said.
It would have been different if the man had been a murder suspect, he said. In that case, police wouldn’t have backed off.
Eight days after the standoff, federal authorities arrested the sex offender in his yard.
A new normal
As the police department works through grief and anger, a nagging thought sticks in officers’ heads: That could have been me.
Neither Lancaster nor Melton worked as a patrol officer. Neither had to respond to radio dispatches the day he was killed.
“Both went to help our front-line people with a situation and lost their lives,” Zeigler said.
The deaths will affect the department’s roughly 340 sworn officers for the rest of their tours, even if that stretches 20 or 30 more years, he said.
“This drives home the point, very pointedly, that this job is dangerous. You need to come to work, be polite, be respectful of our citizens, but take into account your own safety and pay attention to what is going on around you.
“Don’t take it for granted that just because you’ve gone on this type of call a thousand times before that it’s going to turn out like it did a thousand times before, because it can turn on you in a heartbeat.”