Norman, Okla., Police Chief Keith Humphrey likes to tells the story of how he was turned down for his first job as a police officer.
It was with the Dallas Police Department, his hometown, and those who made the decision to reject Humphrey’s application told him he was too nice. He wasn’t tough enough, they said, to be an officer on the streets of Dallas.
The no vote cut deep. But it didn’t deter Humphrey, who later was hired as an officer in neighboring Fort Worth and later Arlington. His passion to serve grew stronger, and years later Humphrey served as police chief in Lancaster, Texas. Now he is one of two finalists for the top police job in Kansas City.
The Star interviewed Humphrey about the current police staffing, the increase in street crime and his goals for the department. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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What made you decide to seek the chief’s job?
It is has always been my goal to become the police chief of a major city. And Kansas City reminds me of Dallas and Arlington, Texas. I have held various supervisory and commander positions, so I have prepared my entire life for this opportunity. I feel that I can make a difference.
What are some of your goals as police chief?
What I want to share with the men and women of the Kansas City Police Department and with the citizens of Kansas City is they have got a person who believes in community-oriented policing, not just in words but in actions. And you have a person who doesn’t mind listening to criticism because criticisms allow us to become better.
I would like to get some direction from the Board of Police Commissioners and then sit down with the external and internal stakeholders and maybe have some difficult conversations. There are going to be some things that have to be heard. There are some things I think that the department thinks they are doing right, and you’re going to have citizens telling them that it’s not.
What are some of the other initiatives you wish to implement?
There are some things internally and externally that need to be assessed and studied. I will look to using data-driven approaches to crime and traffic safety where it focuses on areas that have been identified as having an increase in crime, and realizing that there is a correlation between crime and traffic accidents. There are some concerns about the crime rate, and there are some concerns about domestic violence, and there are some concerns about traffic accidents. You have to provide resources to those areas. But it is not going to be an immediate fix.
We can’t arrest our way of anything anymore. There is no way law enforcement as a whole can solve the problem. Communities expect us to work with them. It’s can’t be one-sided, there has to be a parallel partnership.
The recent staffing study recommended that additional officers be assigned to the patrol divisions and move civilian employees to do jobs currently being held and done by police officers. What is your assessment of the staffing study? Is that something that you plan to implement?
It would be unfair for me to comment on the study at this time. I need to find out how it was done, and I need to find out what the board’s expectations were for the study. I would be interested in having an organization like the International Association of Chiefs of Police or the Police Executive Research Forum come in and provide an assessment. It doesn’t mean the company that did the previous staffing study did anything wrong or concluded something that I disagreed with. Sometimes you have to get two views of something in order for the outcome to be successful.
The Norman, Okla., Police Department is a much smaller agency than Kansas City. What do you hope to bring to the job of police chief?
The size is all relevant. It is about your passion and your leadership ability and your commitment toward the community. So it doesn’t matter the size of the organization, it is your passion and the size of your heart and what you want to accomplish. The things that I have done, I have had an entire career to prepare for this. I have been a student of the profession.
What are your thoughts about the city’s murder rate?
One of the things that I find disheartening is you hear nationally that Kansas City is in the top 10 of violent crimes, but nobody breaks it down to determine what were the reasons how did those crimes occurred. Everyone thinks they are drug- or gang-related? So when you hear that, people automatically think, “Oh my goodness, Kansas City is an unsafe place to go in to travel,” and that’s not true. When you have a major city, you are going to have those offenses.
The problem that you have is how does the police department handles those cases. Are you going in and doing proactive things and determing: What makes this area violent? Why did this happen in this area? Why did it happen to this person? What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
The more you know about a situation, the more you can fix it. A lot of times, the community or the nation, they don’t know the whole story. They don’t about Kansas City NoVa (Kansas City No Violence Alliance). They don’t know that you have officers out here in Kansas City who are working in the community. I would ask that people don’t jump to judgment on the city based on what they may read in the paper.
How would you handle the department being under state control?
I knew that when I applied for it, and that had no adverse impact on my decision. The bottom line is I work for the people. So whether you report to a city manager or whether you report to a mayor or whether you report to a commission or the governor, you still have a job to do, and so I knew when I applied for the job. That’s fine with me. I’m excited about it.
How would you deal with Missouri state’s gun laws?
We have that here in Oklahoma. We have open carry, and it hadn’t been a problem. In the three years that law has been in effect, I have probably seen maybe three individuals carrying openly. The majority of the citizens carry concealed. What we did here is we had a community forum on open carry and basically explained what the law said. We got on top of it, we answered the difficult questions, the fact that you have a right to do that, but let’s be smart.
My thing has always been, get out in front and when major topics come up, get the community involved and get the police department involved and come up with a solution. I think the main thing is teaching people how to respect weapons, and at the same time individuals who have a violent criminal past, you have more restrictions on them. But you don’t eliminate everybody’s ability to carry guns. As chief, you have to express what you are trying accomplish.
Your accomplishment is not taking away people’s Second Amendment rights, but keeping them safe, and you do that through education and through initiatives so people understand the dangers of weapons, because not everybody is going to hurt somebody.
Police Chief Darryl Forté, who was the first African-American to lead the department, said he experienced and dealt with racism within the department. Have you experienced that in your career, and how would you handle that in Kansas City?
I know who I am, and I am proud of who I am. I am proud of what I do, and when I go out and talk to people I express that. I express the history of law enforcement and also where we want to move forward in law enforcement. We want police departments that resemble our communities. We want people to feel that this is a profession and recognize it as a profession.
For years, law enforcement wasn’t looked at as a profession, and I think we are finally getting to that point where more citizens in the minority community are looking at it a profession where they can really make a difference. If all of these things are going on, why don’t I step forward and become part of the solution or see what I can do to help? The No. 1 thing is you have got to admit that you have a problem and that we will address that problem.
What got you interested in law enforcement?
I was born and raised in west Dallas. I was raised in that area of Dallas, which is similar to the eastern part of Kansas City. There wasn’t a good relationship between law enforcement and the minority community in Dallas at the time. My grandfather worked for the Dallas County clerk’s office, so he was always in contact with law enforcement officers, judges and lawyers, so I got to know a lot of them on a personal basis. I got to see that every police officer wasn’t bad or had issues with minorities. I have always wanted to get into a profession where I could make a difference in that organization.
I love this job. I love the ability to do something different every day. I love the ability to mentor and the ability to be mentored. I love the ability to empower; I love being empowered. I love talking to the community. I love hearing what the community says in order to make the community and to make the police department better. It has always been a dream of mine to really make a difference, and this job has allowed me to do that.
I truly believe that I am the right person to run the Kansas City Police Department. I know that I can be an effective leader in the Kansas City Police Department, and I am looking forward to that opportunity.
This is like a dream come true for me.