By Tyler Schneider
Editor’s note: this story was originally published in the April 12 print issue.
The last three years represent the top three most violent in Kansas City’s history, with 2020 setting the bar at 179 homicide cases, followed by 157 in 2021 and 169 in 2022.
Over the course of 90 minutes at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Library on April 5, KC activist Alvin Brooks, new KC Police Department Chief Stacey Graves, and KC Public School Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Collier came together to discuss the root causes of this trend, and how educators and law enforcement can work together to help curb it.
Jeron Ravin, Swope Health President:
The evening was moderated by Jeron Ravin, Swope Health President and CEO, with his organization sponsoring the event alongside KC Common Good. “We serve approximately 25,000 patients a year,” he said. “That’s relevant because some of our patients come from communities where violence is normalized, normalized to the extent that it is the default response to conflict and used as a currency, particularly for young men, in exchange for respect.”
What are those underlying issues exactly? Ravin cites social determinants of health and social interaction (factors such as access to a quality education, affordable housing and health services, job security, food security, etc). In his words, “the house you grew up in matters.”
If that house or family situation isn’t the most stable, for whatever reasons, school—and the support system that it can foster in extracurriculars, etc.—is often the next line of support.
Dr. Jennifer Collier, KCPS Superintendent:
This is especially likely KCPS, a minority-majority district with 99 percent of its 14,000-plus students qualifying for free or reduced lunch and just under a quarter of them learning English as a second language (ESL).
Dr. Collier, who has served as the KCPS interim superintendent since last summer, before locking up the permanent role this year, set the tone, and maintained it throughout the night.
“As educators, we have to understand that many of the negative behaviors that we see (in school), oftentimes those are manifestations of the trauma that they are experiencing in their homes and neighborhoods. Over the last few years, we have really focused on becoming a trauma informed and trauma sensitive school district, and I’m really proud of the work we’re doing,” Collier said.
One such change, Collier explained, was the district’s shift away from suspensions and towards a “restorative approach to discipline.”
“I think the old paradigm was: ‘you misbehave you’re out’,” she said. “Now, this restorative approach, it helps develop in our kids a sense of responsibility within the community that when you do certain things and harm others, you have a responsibility to apologize and make amends. And then that community has a responsibility to embrace you and bring you back in,” Collier said.
Just this year, the district halted the practice of suspending elementary-aged students. In two alternative schools, a pilot program revolving around music and art therapy has already yielded positive results.
Stacey Graves, KCPD Chief:
After a quarter-century of service with the department, Graves was sworn in last December as the first permanent female police chief in KCPD’s history. Like Collier, the new chief faces the task of bringing about positive reform in a storied, but troubled, organization.
“It sounds like you’re coming into a different environment. I’d imagine there’s some pressure to do things radically differently,” Ravin observed as he shifted the discussion over to Graves.
“In such a way, yes,” Graves said, pausing for a moment before adding, “I think it’s just being a human in this position.”
“I like that,” somebody in the audience said, prompting applause from the whole.
“As I became the chief of police, I asked, ‘how do you want to be policed?’ Graves said. “My top priority was to build bridges, to strengthen relationships. Because you really can’t get anywhere unless you’re bringing people together and working together. That’s the whole premise of community policing.”
Graves cites the addition of six new mental health interventionist counselors to the KCPD, plus a number of community outreach programs such as the Police Athletic League, KC360, and Partnering For Peace as just some of the efforts the department has made towards building a stronger relationship with the community.
“We’re kind of the boots on the ground, so to speak. We see people in their worst moments, when they’re in crisis, and it’s their worst day. It’s important that there’s much more of a follow-up,” Graves said. “We’re going to be there for [citizens] in different ways than we have been in the past. It’s not just coming in with enforcement, even if that is still an important part of our job — we’re also coming in with resources, conversations, and conflict resolutions.”
Alvin Brooks, community activist:
As the two women discussed their visions for a safer Kansas City, Brooks, a former KCPD officer and seven year member of the police board of commissioners, was frequently able to draw on nine decades of life experience to provide some fascinating context to the conversation.
Brooks, who had attended segregated schools pre-1954 and witnessed Kansas City riots of 1968, even remembers a time not all that long ago when Black officers couldn’t arrest white perpetrators.
“Well, I’m ninety years old. I know I don’t look a day over 110. But I’m 90 years old,” Brooks quipped. “I saw the police department in the 1950s and the 1960s, and I know what it was then, and I know what it is now. I’ve seen the change in terms of schools teaching our kids, the change in our city as a whole, when the city wasn’t as big and we were segregated.”
“The city has changed for the better in many ways,” Brooks said. “The problem though, is in that saying ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ For our communities of color, things have changed, but not yet to the extent that was intended.”
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