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Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith is being pushed out, but says he’s 'not going anywhere'

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith talks during a town hall meeting in September. Smith announced Tuesday he would retire sometime in 2022.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith talks during a town hall meeting in September. Smith has faced calls to step down since the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020.

The removal of the embattled police chief has been a rallying cry for activists and civil rights groups. It comes just days after a Kansas City Police detective was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a Black man.

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith, whose four years of leadership saw violent street protests, high homicide rates and calls for his resignation, will reportedly step down next year.

During a Tuesday morning meeting with Mayor Quinton Lucas and the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, Smith agreed to retire on March 31, 2022, according to a source familiar with the situation. At the meeting, Smith was faced with the news that there were enough votes on the police board to oust him.

But by evening, a defiant Smith was talking, telling a TV anchor, “I’m not going anywhere.” That’s even though his department issued a carefully-worded statement downplaying the news.

Police Capt. Leslie Foreman, in an email, said when Smith was hired in August 2017, he made a commitment to the board that he would stay on the job for no more than five years.

“As per his commitment, he plans to retire sometime in the upcoming year, 2022,” Foreman wrote. “He will announce that date well in advance to ensure a smooth transition for the police department.”

Many seemed startled by the news, including members of the Kansas City Council.

Councilwoman Teresa Loar sent a text to several of her city council colleagues Tuesday night, which was shared with KCUR.

"Just spoke with the chief and he said he has no plans to leave and does not know of any plans to make him leave. Just FYI," Loar wrote.

Gwen Grant, CEO and president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said Smith's defiance proves he should be gone even earlier than negotiated. Grant, who has been calling for Smith's removal since June 2020, said the chief should be gone as of January 1.

"Go ahead and pay him and send him on his way. March 31 is too long to let him wreak havoc in the department," Grant said. "And it's far too long for him to be in a lame duck role."

Last Friday, a Jackson County judge found KCPD detective Eric DeValkenaere guilty of involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Cameron Lamb, a Black man who was shot backing his truck into his garage. DeValkenaere is the first known Kansas City law enforcement officer to be convicted for the fatal shooting of a Black man.

Since the violent police response to Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020, many activists and civil rights leaders have called for Smith’s firing. But Smith ignored the calls, agreeing to a few changes in police procedures, but mostly staying the course.

In July, a coalition of civil rights groups called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the department. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wrote a letter of support, saying police have “no accountability to our community.”

Even the business community took note after the protests, with two chambers issuing a report that found “broad dissatisfaction” with the current process of investigating officer misconduct cases and complaints from the public as well as with KCPD leadership.

Smith has also been criticized for a high homicide rate, including a record of 182 homicides in 2020. The Kansas City Star has reported the first three years of Smith’s tenure saw police fatally shoot twice as many Black men as the first three years of the previous chief.

After the death of George Floyd, protesters in Kansas City have rallied around the cases of several Black men killed by Kansas City police, including Lamb, Ryan Stokes, Terrance Bridges and Donnie Sanders. In several civil lawsuits field by the victim's families, the city could face large potential payouts.

Former Chief Darryl Forte, now the Jackson County Sheriff, said he wished Smith the best during his retirement.

“Few know what it’s like to serve in the capacity of chief of a major city. None of us are perfect,” he said on Twitter. “Let’s all contribute to bringing law enforcement and other segments of the community together.”

Steve Vockrodt of the Midwest Newsroom contributed to this report.

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism initiative including KCUR, IPR, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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