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Dearth Of Black Detectives On Kansas City Police Force Hobbles Its Ability To Solve Violent Crime

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Critics say the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department is historically deficient in its efforts to diversify its ranks.

With police departments under scrutiny for their relationship with Black Americans, Kansas City, Missouri's police force has a dismal diversity record, especially in its investigative units.

Kansas City has already set a record for homicides this year, with 158 as of this weekend.

Hundreds of other people have been shot and wounded.

The vast majority of victims and witnesses have been African Americans. But only a fraction of the detectives investigating those violent crimes are Black.

And that’s a big problem.

“A Black person wouldn’t feel so intimidated and they could probably open up more to [a Black detective].”

That’s Jan Ragland, whose daughter was wounded in a shooting more than two years ago.

Ragland said her daughter told the detectives who interviewed her that she knew a Black homicide detective with whom she’d be more comfortable talking. But her request was ignored.

“I think they would have gotten way more information, and sooner, regarding what my daughter went through,” Ragland said. “Because they can relate better to them.”

Out of 36 homicide investigators in the Kansas City Police Department, only four are Black. None of the supervising sergeants on the homicide squad are Black.

And of the 24 investigators on the KCPD assault squads, only three are Black. Like the homicide squad, none of the supervising sergeants are Black.

Considering that the assault squads will have investigated some 500 non-fatal shootings by the end of the year, those paltry numbers are especially glaring.

And compounding African American under-representation in key department positions, the entire chain of command in the violent crimes division is white.

“I think it’s pretty awful, especially if most of your victims are African American,” said Heather Taylor, a now-retired homicide supervisor with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and president of the Ethical Society of Police, an association of Black St. Louis police officers.

“If you have people that look like the people in your community, they're going to feel more comfortable with you.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Mitchell Davis, police chief of Hazel Crest, Illinois, a predominantly African American suburb just south of Chicago. “That’s kind of how things go in law enforcement. … If there’s disparity in hiring, that’s going to obviously funnel down to promotions and special assignments.”

Davis, a board member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) who is writing his Ph.D. on the relationship between police and the Black community, said that crime victims are more likely to speak to people who look like them.

“As long as we’re doing things in a professional manner, it shouldn’t matter, but it can always help to have somebody that looks like you, to be able to interact with you,” Davis said.

The criminology literature appears to bear that out.

“For black victims, they may be more inclined to talk about these horrific events that they're experiencing with officers of color, simply because these are things that are affecting their community,” said Toya Like, a criminal justice professor at UMKC’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Like said the mere symbolism of greater Black representation on the police force has the potential to create its own reality – or as she put it, “the perception of equity will feed the realities of equity.”

“Are they going to be able to trust that they can talk to that officer and then trust that something substantively is going to be done?” she asked.

In a statement to KCUR, KCPD spokesman Sgt. Jake Becchina said the department’s investigators “take every crime seriously with professionalism and passion to solve every crime.”

Becchina pointed to an improved homicide clearance rate of 51% for this year – although federal authorities have taken credit for some of that improvement following a surge of federal agents to Kansas City, dubbed Operation LeGend, for several weeks during the summer.

"We have always believed police officers should look like the community they serve and therefore are in support of a more diverse police department,” said Sgt. Brad Lemon, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “It just makes sense. Diversity on a police department, especially in a community that has a large population of minorities, can only help improve the relationship between police officers and the public.”

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Vickie Newton
Family and friends gathered in October in an east Kansas City park for a balloon release honoring Patrick Sanders, who was murdered in an apartment months after his uncle, Donnie Sanders, was shot and killed by a Kansas City, Missouri, police officer.

Of this year’s 158 homicide victims, 115, or 73%, were African American. Yet the latest demographic breakdown provided by the KCPD shows that only 12% of all the officers in the department are African American.

Kansas City is hardly alone in the degree to which African Americans are underrepresented in its police department, particularly in supervisory positions. A Governing magazine analysis in 2015 of personnel data reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that minority groups were underrepresented by an average of 24 percentage points compared to census estimates for the general public.

Patrick Oliver, who directed a police chief mentoring program for NOBLE, told the magazine that residents are more likely to relay feedback when agencies reflect their communities and, as a result, maintain stronger community relationships.

“When segments of the community are not part of the agency, there’s a reason for that and you have to address it,” he said.

Sean O’Brien, a criminal law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and a former public defender, said there’s another reason why it’s important to have more Black detectives on the police force: It would likely result in fewer wrongful convictions.

“Anytime you’re trying to serve a diverse community with a non-diverse team, you immediately hobble yourself,” O’Brien said.

It’s a problem that’s not limited to detectives, O’Brien added. It reaches across the entire spectrum of law enforcement, from prosecutors’ offices to the courts.

“The real issue across the board in law enforcement is that it is still an overwhelmingly white system, and on the police side, it’s still overwhelmingly white males,” he said.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she often starts conversations with Black families by acknowledging they may be disappointed to see yet another white face.

“You start off with a different level of credibility,” she said. “You can get it but you don’t start with it.”

For that reason, Baker said she went to great lengths to recruit the 21% of prosecutors in her office who are Black.

“I had to work hard to get it,” she said.

The police department has struggled for years to diversify its ranks. But the percentage of Black officers in the department has remained stubbornly low for a long time.

The department said its most recent class of recruits was its most diverse ever. But that class was canceled due to budget problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even after someone joins the department, they must work three years on patrol before applying for a specialty assignment like detective. And nobody goes from patrol to homicide. There’s always a stop in another detective unit, such as property crimes.

At best then, it takes years to make it onto the homicide unit. And many officers don’t want to leave patrol because homicide- or assault-squad duty means being on call 24 hours a day.

“It’s a calling,” Lemon, of the Fraternal Order of Police, said of being a detective.

And because there is no separate rank of detective in the KCPD, the only way to make more money is to work a lot of overtime, Lemon noted.

Review the department's history

Former Kansas City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Brooks, who was a member of the Kansas City police force for 10 years until 1964, said he raised the issue of the dearth of Black detectives as far back as 1977.

“If they had more Black detectives working at the assault squad and the homicide squad, they’d do a better job of solving some of these unsolved homicides,” said Brooks, who founded the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime.

The typical rejoinder he gets, he said, is that everyone gets the same training, so it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a Black or white detective. But Brooks doesn't buy it.

“I really think that if you had more Black detectives out there who could identify with the community, then you’d really get a lot more violent crimes solved,” Brooks said.

Rev. Dr. Vernon P. Howard Jr., senior pastor at St. Mark Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, which has called for the dismissal of Police Chief Rick Smith, said a family belonging to his congregation “was appalled at the lack of response when their loved one was killed about two or three months ago.”

“The fact of the matter is that it is reasonable for African Americans in Kansas City who are victims of crime to have a distrust with respect to white officers within the agency,” Howard said. “Not because the particular white officer has been proven to do anything wrong – we don’t cast aspersions upon any individual. It’s the broader systemic racism that causes that distrust.”

Taylor, the retired St. Louis homicide supervisor, said it’s up to commanders to ensure there’s diversity throughout the entire department.

“You have to be committed to it, and you have to be committed to identifying the differences and understanding the implicit and the explicit biases that are present,” she said.

O’Brien, of UMKC law school, recalled that a now-retired Black detective named Ron Russell managed to eke out more information from some of the witnesses to a 1996 double murder than other detectives on the case.

But the evidence dug up by Russell, O’Brien ruefully said, went largely ignored and was not pursued.

The upshot was that Ricky Kidd was convicted of the crime and served 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Last year, a DeKalb County judge found that Kidd’s trial had been unfair and the evidence was "clear and convincing" that he was innocent.

“You can't expect a bunch of old white guys, or even young white guys, to serve the needs of a community like Kansas City,” O’Brien said. “Especially where we’ve had such a history of housing discrimination in Kansas City that we have heavily concentrated African American and minority neighborhoods. You do need a diverse force to serve their needs.”

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