No, Rick Smith: New police recruits don’t need to learn the existing KCPD ‘culture’

·3 min read
File/The Kansas City Star

Like many businesses, public and private, the Kansas City Police Department is struggling with resignations and retirements. They need to find new employees to replace the ones who are leaving.

The Board of Police Commissioners discussed this problem Tuesday. The department said it is working hard to find qualified recruits, including potential officers from other communities, or those who have studied law enforcement in community colleges.

That’s when outgoing Chief Rick Smith joined in. Book learning isn’t enough for potential officers, he said. They need to go through the Kansas City Regional Police Academy, and for a reason.

“When someone … comes into this department as a new recruit, the academy is about as much of the culture of this organization as it is about the schoolwork,” he said. “It’s about becoming a Kansas City, Missouri, police officer, something that would be totally missed if not engaged in this.”

The retiring chief continued. “We make them go to the academy,” Smith said, “so they get exposure to our culture before they hit the streets.”

You can see the problem — and why it’s essential that the search for Smith’s replacement focus on candidates from outside the department’s current “culture.”

The majority of Kansas City’s officers are hardworking, conscientious public servants. They take their jobs seriously, and treat residents with the respect they deserve.

But as The Star illustrated again just this week, the department’s culture under Chief Smith includes officers who use excessive force to punish minority suspects. “More than 57% of the use of force incidents from 2019 to July 2021 were against Black people,” the newspaper reported.

Black people make up less than a third of Kansas City’s population.

At least one former officer is likely headed to prison after his conviction for shooting a Black man. Others face charges. The department is spending millions in taxpayer funds to settle excessive force lawsuits — money that might go to provide bigger salary increases for employees.

Is police brutality part of the department’s culture? The answer must be no, and the department must work harder ahead to weed out officers who use force improperly.

But the problem goes further than that. Even good cops are tarnished if their department tolerates bad cops. There can be no question that such tolerance exists in the Kansas City department.

It starts at the top. Chief Smith knows who the bad actors are, yet refuses to move them out of the department. In fact, he keeps police officers accused of misbehavior on the payroll. Defending officers is often more important than serving the public interest.

But police departments mistreat the public when officers value loyalty and silence above service.

That culture must change when Smith retires in a few months. Kansas City needs and deserves a chief of police who wants to change the culture by disciplining bad officers and requiring good officers to report misbehavior by their colleagues.

That has to become part of the Kansas City Police Department’s culture, and a new chief must make sure it’s taught at the academy, and at police stations every day.

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