When Chief Rick Smith takes command of the Kansas City Police Department in the next two weeks, his greatest challenge will certainly be gaining the trust and confidence of the communities he will serve and protect. In this era of mounting political strife, we will have high expectations.
As one of the members of the community who will be watching closely, I must confess some concerns from the outset. First, we have very little evidence that Smith understands the importance of community relations, even though he has been on the force for nearly three decades and claims to have built strong relationships. We in the civil rights community know very little about him.
Moreover, the officers and residents I have spoken with express serious concerns about Smith’s failure to build authentic relationships within the minority community. His predecessor, Chief Darryl Forté, went the extra mile to strengthen police-community relations.
The new chief has some large shoes to fill. Good policing requires law enforcement to work in partnership with community. They must be visible, responsive, proactive, accessible and collaborative. To succeed in this job, Smith will need more than the support of the Fraternal Order of Police and the rank and file. His success will depend almost entirely on his ability to build trust and his ability to engage in collaborative partnerships with a variety of organizations throughout Kansas City.
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A good place to start will be building a police force that is representative of the city it serves. Today, African-Americans represent approximately 30 percent of Kansas City’s population, and Latinos make up approximately 10 percent, yet only 15 percent of the police force is African-American, and very few African-Americans are on the command staff.
On the issue of recruiting a more diverse force, Smith has promised to work with faith-based organizations. The church card is too often used to assuage black people because the civil rights movement was born in the black church. If he is truly committed to recruiting a diverse police department, we need more than faith. Smith will need to use various recruiting strategies, starting with removing institutional barriers to recruiting and retaining more officers from urban neighborhoods.
Finally, as Smith takes over as chief of police, we need to recognize the volatility of this moment in history. Just over a week ago, the president of the United States joked about police brutality, while white officers applauded and laughed. For the first time, the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for Missouri, warning travelers and residents about possible discrimination and racist attacks. We are at an inflection point in history. We will either overcome these entrenched problems, or we will descend into anger and anarchy.
At this point, all we have is the new chief’s word. He says, “I think I bring a piece of innovation. I think I bring a piece of good policing. I think I bring a piece of building good relationships in this community for 29 years. I think I bring a piece of great leadership. Put it all together, and I think I make a great chief.”
The new police chief, in partnership with the community, will need to build a department that creates peace, not strife; trust, not suspicion; hope, not hate. We are here to help.
Gwendolyn Grant is president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.