In making the final rounds of his nearly five-year tenure as Kansas City’s Chief of Police, Rick Smith spoke at the South Kansas City Alliance at the KCPD South Patrol Station, April 11, to discuss the staffing and recruiting shortages that will soon become the burden of his eventual successor.
The occasion was Smith’s last public appearance in south KC as the chief of police.
Smith announced March 25 that he would officially retire on April 22. In the interim, as a national search begins for Smith’s permanent successor, Deputy Chief Joseph Mabin (who has said he will not apply for the position) will step up to oversee the KCPD’s remaining 1,145 or so officers and 500 employees.
Since taking up the role of chief in August 2017, Smith’s KCPD had 1,387 officers on staff at its peak. Now, the atrophy within the ranks is evident. Twelve officers left the KCPD in March alone, adding to a shortage that continues to cause all sorts of logistical problems for the department’s collective 911 call response efforts.
“I don’t see any end in sight. We had two officers leave last week. Two of them just left, they just got out of policing altogether. We’re losing a lot of officers between the three and five year range in particular,” Smith said.
The shortage in officers forces the department’s six patrol divisions to sometimes share officers. At their busiest, the department faces citywide blackouts—when police officers are at full capacity working on existing 911 calls and therefore cannot answer another call until the current one is finished.
“What we have now is a very scattered approach. The first car available goes to the most important call that’s in the queue,” Smith explained. “And, as I have said, our 911 calls in the call center continue to rise. They don’t go down.”
To alleviate the shortages in the short term, Smith has resorted to a practice called ‘buyback opportunity’.
“We will purchase an officer for either overtime, on their day off, or to extend their shift so that they can work so we can meet staffing requirements in the police department because we don’t have enough officers to fill that shift. That’s what causes us to move South Patrol officers sometimes all the way north, and North Patrol officers all the way out south,” Smith said.
This strategy doesn’t help the department in strengthening community relations—a factor many list as a crucial asset to look for in Smith’s successor.
Under this constraint, “there’s not much of what we call ‘district integrity’, whereas we keep officers in their assigned districts so they get to know people, the neighborhoods, and things like that. Right now, we have officers going all over the place,” Smith said.
The long term solution is distant, but will start with another season of police academy classes beginning May 1. Smith said that the academy is hoping to hire “three of four academy classes,” which he finds encouraging, but not any kind of game changer.
When asked by Dr. John Carmichael to give an estimate on what an ideal number of officers on staff would be, Smith’s answer was 1,500—just above its all-time high of 1,498—at an estimated cost of $8 million.
Later on in the evening, South Patrol Division Commander Major James Buck gave his own answer to that question, saying that he currently had about 70 officers between all three shifts, with “six to seven out on an average day.”
“An average crime scene runs anywhere from four to seven officers. So, if someone gets stabbed, someone gets shot, I then need four to seven for that crime scene. Basically, one shooting in my division wipes out everybody I’ve got [on call] at the time,” Buck said, citing a recent shooting in Bull Creek as an example.
“If we start talking about [staffing] ideals, we probably need to be close to 50% of what we currently have, around 36 more officers is the number that the statistics lead me to. And that is based on when you view the statistics on violent crime in our division. I actually have more violent crime than Central Patrol, but I have half their staff,” Buck said.
Back behind the podium, Smith confirmed that he would not be involved in the process of onboarding the next KCPD Chief in any capacity, or otherwise seek to continue his career with another department elsewhere.
“I will not do another job in law enforcement,” Smith said. “I’ve done this for 34 years. There’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole different set of opportunities and different things that I think I can be helpful in and I think that’s where I’ll put my efforts.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, the several dozen attendees who had stayed until the end were able to return anonymous surveys regarding the search for the next chief. The national search will be handled by an outside agency, and the process could take nine to 12 months to