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Kansas City Star Joins Critics Demanding Police Chief Rick Smith’s Resignation

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announcing last month that the department had received a donation that will allow it to purchase body cameras.

Smith continues to have many defenders, including current and former members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, which, by a 3-2 vote, selected him as police chief in July 2017.

The Kansas City Star has joined a growing chorus of voices calling for the resignation of Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith.

In an editorial today, The Star’s editorial board said the department is whiter now than it was when he became chief three years ago, and its officers have shot and killed twice as many Black men as it did during the first three years of his predecessor’s leadership.

“Law enforcement that exempts the guys with the guns and badges from accountability was never OK, and his department’s public position that police shootings are by definition justified shootings is untenable,” the editorial stated.

It also cited a lack of transparency by the department, its unwillingness to cooperate with investigations by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker into police shootings, Smith’s “non-relationship” with the minority community and Smith’s doing away with the city’s previous anti-violence strategy.

“The chief is a throwback to another time, actually arguing that marijuana leads to homicide. He’s an old-school cop who has shown no sign of understanding that the old school is no longer in session,” the editorial board wrote.

The editorial follows calls for Smith’s resignation by the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime; the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association, which represents a neighborhood of about 10,000 people in the historic Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City; and several local civil rights groups, including the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, NAACP, Urban Summit and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In a guest commentary in The Star last month, Gwendolyn Grant, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, wrote that the past year had “set a new watermark for incompetence, indifference and injustice from the leadership of the Kansas City Police Department.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, calls for the dismissal of Police Chief Rick Smith on the steps of Kansas City Police headquarters downtown on July 10.

Grant cited the indictment of two officers for the assault of Brianna Hill, a transgender Black woman who was later killed in an unrelated incident, and the indictment of another officer for the killing of Cameron Lamb, a Black man, as he was backing his truck into his garage. In both cases, she said, Smith had obstructed justice by refusing to hand over probable cause statements to prosecutors.

The calls for Smith’s resignation come as Kansas City is on pace for a record number of homicides this year. Excluding fatal police shootings, there have been 105 homicides so far this year, up 35% from the number at the same time last year. The city’s most deadly year was 2017, when, excluding fatal police shootings, it recorded 151 homicides. Last year, the city recorded 150 homicides.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced it would dispatch more than 200 federal law enforcement agents to Kansas City in response to what Attorney General William Barr called “the disturbing uptick in violence” in the area. “Operation Legend,” named after 4-year-old LeGend Talifero, who was shot and killed last month while he was sleeping, will involve agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the department said.

Smith has also come in for criticism for the way his department handled protests following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was detained and killed in Minneapolis when a policeman kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes. Kansas City police deployed tear gas, pepper spray and some projectiles during volatile protests in late May. At a subsequent police board meeting, Smith defended his officers, saying they only resorted to those actions after crowds ignored clear verbal warnings to disperse.

Smith continues to have many defenders, including current and former members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, which, by a 3-2 vote, selected him as police chief in July 2017.

Former Board President Leland Shurin, who stepped down in December after the expiration of his four-year term, said he strongly supported Smith although he did not do so when he was selected as chief.

Nathan Garrett, another member of the Board of Police Commissioners, said Smith had his “steadfast” support.

“I believe he’s the right leader at the right time,” Garrett said. “And that's been my judgment throughout his tenure at the police department. And the unfortunate events in Minneapolis did not change my view of that.”

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a police department spokesman, said in an email that Smith was “focused on leading the day to day operation of the department the best he can, for the citizens of KC and the officers here.”

“He’s focused on reducing violent crime in our community,” Becchina said.

Former Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who was mayor when Smith was appointed, declined to comment on whether he supports Smith, saying he would defer to his successor, Mayor Quinton Lucas.

“I think it just gets too political when a former mayor starts talking about things that the current mayor should handle,” James said.

Lucas could not be reached for comment.

The calls for Smith to resign come amid nationwide demands for sweeping police reform, including calls to defund police departments, ban neck restraints, increase police departments’ transparency and mandate training to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

Smith was sworn in as Kansas City’s 45th police chief on August 15, 2017, following Darryl Forté’s retirement. He joined the department as an officer in 1987 and worked his way up the ranks. Before becoming chief, he was commander of the East and Central Patrol Divisions.

Smith was the only internal candidate among the three finalists — out of 42 who applied — for the job. The others were Deputy Chief U. Renee Hall of the Detroit Police Department and Chief Keith Humphrey of the Norman, Oklahoma, Police Department.

Hall was named chief of the Dallas Police Department before Smith was chosen, leaving Smith, who is white, and Humphrey, who is black, as the two finalists for the job.

As a reporter covering breaking news and legal affairs, I want to demystify often-complex legal issues in order to expose the visible and invisible ways they affect people’s lives. I cover issues of justice and equity, and seek to ensure that significant and often under-covered developments get the attention they deserve so that KCUR listeners and readers are equipped with the knowledge they need to act as better informed citizens. Email me at dan@kcur.org.
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