Since he was a 5-year-old boy growing up in Minnesota, Rick Smith always wanted to be a cop.
That dream became reality in 1988 when Smith became a Kansas City police officer. For nearly three decades, Smith has worked a variety of assignments. He’s worked beat as a patrol officer, helped tracked down murderers as a homicide supervisor and is now the leader of the Central Patrol Division on East Linwood Boulevard.
Last week, the Kansas City police board announced that Smith and Norman, Okla., Police Chief Keith Humphrey are the two finalists to replace Interim Police Chief David Zimmerman, who has led the department since May following the retirement of Police Chief Darryl Forté.
The decision of who will be next police chief is expected to be made sometime in August.
The Star interviewed Smith about the current surge in homicides and gun violence and what his plans are for the department. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What made you decide that you wanted to become police chief?
I got into the police work: You take on more responsibility, you assume more supervisory roles and you think you can make a difference; make different decisions and do things differently and have better outcomes, and that’s why I am seeking the top role — because I think I can make a difference.
What are some of your goals as police chief?
I had three main things. I would like to set up employees for success. I would like to work on the reduction of crime and neighborhood concerns, and I want to build effective and efficient partnerships.
We’ve seen a serious uptick in homicides this year. What are your thoughts about the current crime rate and the level of violence that we are experiencing?
Obviously, it is disappointing. The city has an overabundance of violence obviously for a city our size and when you look at our national ranking. … Let’s look at gun violence. I think there is an opportunity for the police department to get involved where we can … for prosecuting gun crimes. There are opportunities to look for ways to drive down that violence. And all of that has to happen with partnerships with the community. It has to be people supporting what needs to be done and getting our community involved. People are tired of walking down their streets and seeing shell casings or hearing shots fired. And we need that kind of trust with the community where they pick up the phone and call police and see what we can do to intervene.
What are some of things you think that can be done to reduce street violence?
We as a department need to engage in the intelligence that we get, disseminate that and make sure that our officers are aware. Communications is always a big thing in any type of leadership role but with the police department, it is very important. Increase technology, how do you funnel that down? How do you get that increased technology to the boots on the streets so they are using it most effectively? We really need to look at how we’re doing that and sharing that information.
Interim Police Chief David Zimmerman recently deployed additional officers in four small geographic areas in an effort to reduce gun and street violence. Before that Police Chief Darryl Forté implemented hot spot policing. Do you see yourself continuing that or how do you plan to enhance or modify those efforts?
I would like to put some boots in patrol. Having some people man cars is important; it allows the people who are out there, who are getting a ton of work, give them a break and add some reinforcements. So I would like to look at some ways to add some personnel to patrol. I would like to evaluate the hot spot, I think what Chief Zimmerman is doing — deploying officers to do normal things like write traffic tickets — I think it is a good idea. I just don’t know what the benefits of it are yet, but I like the concept, and I think it should be evaluated and see how it goes.
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?
My initial view of the study which hasn’t been highlighted, just my initial read through, is there are some things that I very much agreed with and there were some things that I questioned. Some of the jobs that the staffing study said, “Hey, maybe we could get rid of this,” but I don’t know if they took it into account exactly all of the work that they do. I think there needs to be a thorough vetting and say, “Hey, is this exactly what we want?” because everything is different. They came into the department, they did their study, but I live and work here. I know that there are some places where we can do better with resources and some other places where I really question, “Is that the right call?” just because I have the knowledge of what those people really do.
What are some of the things in the study that you agreed with?
I think patrol needs more people. I think they said 37 people right away. I totally agreed with that. We need to get boots out on the streets. I went to neighborhood forums when they were talking about the new chief and the No. 1 concern was people want to see more officers. They just feel like there’s not enough. You heard the young lady speak up north, standing by waiting for a police car for 30 minutes to make a medical response. That tells me that we have issues.
As police chief, how would you describe your management style? What are some of the things that you do now that you plan to bring as police chief?
I like to communicate. I like to set expectations, and I like people to achieve them. I actually like to be engaged, I like to walk around and I like to talk to people. I like to know what is going on, I like to hear from people; I like to hear from the troops, I like to give positive reinforcement. I want to model good behavior and ask people to follow that. I think I listen well; I like to listen to ideas. Many of the ideas that are implemented in center zone (Central Patrol) come from officers. They didn’t come from chiefs of police or other cities; they came from right here. These are people who have been on the streets for 20, 30 years. They know what they are doing, and I think one of my best traits is I can hear those concerns regardless of who they are coming from.
Police Chief Darryl Forté was very visible, but not to try to compare him to you, were there some things that he did that you plan on continuing?
You can’t deny his engagement with the community is unprecedented. He could go out and engage with anybody almost anywhere and did a fantastic job. Am I that good? I don’t know. I do a lot of things through other people. I assign them a task and say, “This needs to be handled.” I don’t know if it will always be me that will be sitting there, but the police department will be engaged, absolutely.
You were at Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVA, recently. How was that experience?
As I have said before, NoVA has a lot of strengths and it has some limitations. I think that we can work on the limitations and build on the strengths, and I that is what I plan to do.
What are some of those things that need to be improved?
When you have to look at homicide numbers, you see what is trending, what is being effective. I don’t know if implementation is 100 percent effective. We may have tweak some things, to say, “What can we do to really effect this crime that continues to build?” I think there needs to be a review and an honest analysis of, “Hey, is this the bang for our buck?” — that we need to drive those numbers down. And if it is not, then maybe we have to change it.
What new initiatives or efforts are you going to implement as police chief?
In December of last year, center zone (Central Patrol) was the first division in the city to embed a social worker in the division. One of the things that I learned at NoVA — there was the enforcement side and the social service side. An officer brought it to me and said, “What do you think about bringing the social worker into the station?” I said, “That’s a great idea.”
Last summer we started working on the youth issue and curfew in the entertainment districts. A social service advocate has worked with the youth, and we have tried different approaches with enforcement and all kinds of stuff in the entertainment districts, and we added the social service side through interactions through presentations in schools.
After one enforcement activity with curfews, we are now looking at a different element down on the Plaza on Saturday nights. Using not so much police force but still applying direction to the youth, we changed the environment.
Is there anything that you want residents to know about you?
One of my best traits is I like to listen to neighborhood concerns. Whether the most important concerns of that neighborhood is a speeding car, or it is a problem house or someone playing their radio at night or we’re having a burglary problem, I think that is important. Not every neighborhood has the violent crime, but I think as a police leader we have to look at the quality of life across the city, and I think we need to look at what we can do to make that quality as strong as possible. I want our people to listen people’s concerns.