Thirty years of fighting crime on the streets of Kansas City bestows a wealth of experience that can’t be bought.
But it can be hired.
A growing number of small cities in the metropolitan area are turning to the ranks of the area’s largest police force when choosing leaders for their departments.
With the Feb. 16 hiring of Kansas City Police Maj. James Pruetting, the city of Gardner became the latest, and the second this year, to avail itself of a ready source of managerial and crime-fighting competence and expertise.
Pruetting joins at least eight former Kansas City colleagues who now carry the title of police chief in the immediate Kansas City area. That doesn’t count others who lead departments ranging from Abilene, Kan., to Gower, Mo.
It is seen as a win-win situation for the cities and for officers not ready to hang up their badges when facing Kansas City’s mandatory 30-year retirement policy, which has been eased only recently.
“They’re certainly not ready to sit at home and watch game shows,” said Pleasant Valley Police Chief Mark Dumolt, a 30-year Kansas City veteran. “They still have that fire in their belly.”
The pace in smaller cities may be slower, but the jobs can be just as challenging. When it comes to crime, small town doesn’t necessarily equate to small time, the chiefs say.
“The bad guys don’t honor city limits signs and boundaries,” Dumolt said. “The risks are certainly not confined to the big city environment.”
That was punctuated in Pleasant Valley on Dec. 13 when a motorist shot Officer Jacob Baldwin in the face during an Interstate 35 traffic stop. A suspect has been arrested and charged with shooting Baldwin, who is recuperating.
Dumolt found it ironic that Baldwin avoided injury during four U.S. military deployments to war zones but ended up getting wounded in small-town Pleasant Valley.
“It (crime) can happen anyplace, anytime, anywhere,” he said.
Greg Mills, who spent 29 years in Kansas City and retired as a major in charge of the department’s narcotics and vice unit, has been police chief of Riverside for almost 10 years.
“What I was looking for was an opportunity that, with my experience, I could contribute in some way,” he said.
Mills recognized that smaller-department members might feel trepidation about getting a chief from a bigger city who they fear will “come in with their Kansas City ways and change everything.”
“Bigger isn’t always better,” said Mills, who recently took on the added role of Riverside city manager. “You have to improve where you need to improve, but you have to respect the culture and the history of the organization.”
By supervising a large number of officers, a big-city officer gains experience that can’t be earned in a smaller department, said Grain Valley Mayor Mike Todd, whose city hired former Kansas City Sgt. David Starbuck as police chief in January.
“It’s a definite advantage to us,” Todd said. “You’re just not going to find that anywhere else.”
Smaller cities find an advantage in hiring retirees who are receiving a pension at a relatively young age, Todd said.
“They may be willing to take the job for not so much money,” he said. “It’s an affordable source of experience.”
Though the community demographics may be different, “it’s still the same basic police work,” said Starbuck, who spent 25 years in Kansas City and nine years working for a federal agency.
And like other former Kansas City officers, Starbuck said he has come to appreciate how the smaller departments make do with far fewer resources.
“You have to wear a lot of hats,” he said.
Dumolt of Pleasant Valley said that because the small towns don’t have the ready access to specialized units like crime scene investigators, helicopters and tactical teams like they do in Kansas City, they must rely on other agencies when they need help.
That’s where having so many other former Kansas City colleagues in key positions is beneficial, he said.
“You have to work together and rely on your good working relationships,” he said.
Although some people may have a stereotypical notion of small-town police officers being “Barney Fife” types, Raymore Police Chief Jan Zimmerman, another former Kansas City major and 30-year veteran of the department, said she found a group of young, energetic and dedicated officers.
“Nobody was just there collecting a paycheck,” she said. “They really wanted to serve the community.”
Small-town policing also offers opportunities for connecting with citizens that is hard to do in a larger city, Zimmerman said.
“It’s a good fit for someone who enjoys community policing,” she said.
When Kevin Chrisman retired from Kansas City in 2006 after a combined 34 years as a civilian employee and officer, he had no intention of continuing in law enforcement. But by year two of retirement, he was starting to feel that lure of serving.
“It’s who I am,” he said. “It’s what I know.”
When the Parkville police chief’s job opened, Chrisman applied and was hired in 2009.
“It’s not to say that homegrown guys don’t do well, but they just don’t have the repetition of experience,” he said. “There’s nothing I haven’t seen.”