Six years ago, the historic Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood of northeast Kansas City was on the brink. Stately houses once home to the region’s elite were havens for squatters and a goldmine for thieves ripping out plumbing. Crime and drug dealing flourished.
Fed up, residents turned to a Kansas City police community interaction officer, who connected them to other law enforcement and city agencies. In time, they rid the neighborhood of problem spots, reduced crime and restored pride in the area.
That’s why the president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association, Leslie Caplan, and other neighborhood leaders in the city were not pleased when Police Chief Darryl Forté announced this month that he’s reassigning the community interaction officers in each of the city’s six patrol divisions. Instead of helping revive communities, they’ll answer emergency calls.
“We are disappointed in the whole idea,” Caplan said. “It would seem to us that if you are really focused on community engagement, then you engage the community from the get-go.”
Other neighborhood leaders support Forté’s change. In letters to dozens of them in early August informing neighborhoods of the change, Forté said that instead of one officer tending to community relationships, the entire police force would now be encouraged to develop one-on-one interactions with residents.
“The specific assignment of community policing responsibilities to a limited number of our members hinders effective communication between the community we serve and the Police Department,” Forté said in his letters.
“Moreover, I believe this specialization does not afford us the best opportunity to build relationships within the community unless every Police Department member focuses on community policing.”
Community interaction officers attend monthly neighborhood meetings and work with residents. They address crime trends, set up neighborhood cleanups, help connect neighbors, deal with abandoned housing and advise people on other residential issues.
Caplan of the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood, situated between Cliff Drive and Independence Avenue to the north and south and Jackson Avenue and Chestnut Trafficway to the east and west, held up the area as a good example of what can happen.
“We now have an increase in the number of people moving into our neighborhood or exploring our neighborhood as a possible location to live,” she said. “We now have developers looking at our neighborhoods. All of those things have been the result of what we did in addressing crime, vacant housing and blight. I can’t sing the praises of a CIO enough.”
Several leaders want Forté to reverse his decision to reassign community interaction officers or, at the very least, allow a transition period.
Forté is giving each division commander 90 days to devise a plan on how all patrol officers can better engage with residents and neighborhood leaders on their beats.
“For years, we have used this same model where we had one designated interaction officer at one particular station, and I want to increase that,” Forté said. “They are not losing a community interaction officer, they are gaining additional community interaction officers in their neighborhoods.”
Several neighborhood leaders said they’re on board with Forté’s new direction.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Diane Charity, president of the Historic Manheim Park Association. “He is doing what we asked him to do. The decision to do this was very timely.”
Charity said she recently served on a citizen’s task force that examined community policing. One of the group’s recommendations was for the Police Department to find ways to further engage the community.
However, Deb Hermann, CEO of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., said she served on the same task force and the decision to eliminate community interaction officers never came up.
“We are very supportive of the Police Department, and we are very supportive of Chief Forté, we’re just concerned that this decision was made without consulting the community,” Hermann said. “I don’t know how you do community policing when you don’t include the community.”
Critics point out that reassigning the six community interaction officers to patrol beats would not solve the department’s staffing issues and its ability to respond in a timely manner to the barrage of emergency calls received each day.
“Patrol officers seem to be more stretched, and we are leaning on the community interaction officers for more,” Hermann said. “It seems the patrol officers do not have the time to delve into the deep issues; it is the community interaction officers coming in to ask what they can do about neighborhood issues.”
Additional officers are needed, but assuming patrol officers have enough time to engage residents at the level that Forté is seeking may not be realistic, said Manny Abarca, vice president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association.
“The concept that the chief is talking about is great,” Abarca said. “I don’t disagree that more officers need to make positive connections to the community leaders and neighborhoods they patrol. But where is the time going to be placed for those officers to do that?”
Forté said he is trying to bridge the gap that exist between the Police Department and some sectors of the community.
In the 1990s, the department had a high homicide clearance rate because many of those investigators assigned to the unit already had long-established ties to neighborhoods they previously served as patrol officers. Many homicides now go unsolved because some residents are reluctant to speak to investigators, Forté said.
“We will continue to reach out to all segments of the neighborhood, and we will continue to engage our officers at a higher level and hopefully hold them more accountable for what they do,” he said. “We want them to engage at a different level.”
Some of that outreach began Thursday evening.
Officer Greg Smith, the community interaction officer at East Patrol, attended the monthly meeting of the Seven Oaks Neighborhood Association, where he alerted those who gathered at Friendship Baptist Church about the chief’s reassignment decision.
“My first thought was panic,” Gwen Davis, neighborhood association president, said when she heard the news. “I don’t know how it is going to work out, but for now I’m kind of OK with it.”