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Kansas City, Kansas, recorded its least deadly year in a decade. Police watchdogs are taking notice

Closeup exterior of a brick building. A plaque on the outside shows an official seal with an eagle that reads "Police: Kansas City, Kansas." Large letters on the building read, "Police Headquarters."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department headquarters at 700 Minnesota Ave.

Police Chief Karl Oakman, on the job for two years, says he reduced homicides and violent crime by using four strategies, including keeping officers present in neighborhoods and responding to every single fentanyl overdose.

Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department statistics show a significant reduction in violent crime during Chief Karl Oakman’s first two years as head of the agency, and community watchdogs say the changes are commendable.

After decades that reinforced the department's reputation as a corrupt force that failed to respond to a large violent crime problem — which past FBI reports confirm — the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department appears to be making strides toward better results. That’s even as former KCKPD Detective Roger Golubski faces a federal criminal trial on allegations that he was a dirty cop who protected drug dealers and serially abused Black women.

Not including police shootings, KCKPD reported 24 homicides in 2023, the lowest since 2012, when there were 22. (On the other side of the state line, in Kansas City, Missouri, police recorded the city’s deadliest year, with 182 homicides.)

LaDora Lattimore, who headed a domestic violence shelter in KCK for more than 40 years and now leads the Law Enforcement Advisory Board, said she’s been “more than impressed” with Oakman’s work. The 75-year-old Lattimore, who said she’s worked with “many, many, many” chiefs over the years, could name only one other that she thought did a good job.

“We can’t negate the fact that he is a law enforcement officer and yet he approaches it from a global perspective,” Lattimore said. “He knows the officers can’t just respond (to crime) and not have community support.”

Oakman, who took over the embattled department in June 2021, said he believes the community needs to trust police, but he also believes police must trust the community. If they don’t, he said, they will only respond to 911 calls and not invest in people.

“When they trust the community, they’re going to make that call, they’re going to spend time in that neighborhood, they’re going to talk to the people in the neighborhood,” Oakman said in an interview with KCUR. “And when they see something that doesn’t fit in that neighborhood, they’re going to proactively investigate it, whether it's enforcement or community engagement. Because they are there to serve that community.”

Chief Karl Oakman, at his swearing-in ceremony in June 2021 at Kansas City, Kansas, Police headquarters.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Chief Karl Oakman, at his swearing-in ceremony in June 2021 at Kansas City, Kansas, Police headquarters.

One high-profile problem during the last two years was the April 2023 fatal shooting of Amaree’ya Henderson, a 25-year-old Black man who was delivering for DoorDash when a KCKPD officer killed him. In a departure from past procedure, Oakman brought in an outside agency to investigate — the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, where Oakman worked for 30 years. Ultimately, the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute the officer, saying he acted within the law.

The key to his work, Oakman said, is that his leadership team, including deputy chiefs, ”constantly look at what’s causing violence, what’s driving violence, and what you can do as a police department and then what the community can do,” he said. “It starts with us.”

Oakman said his next goal is to create an illegal gun squad, to catch “trigger-pullers.”

“Our goal is to try to reduce (the homicide) number by at least 15 percent every year, to where we can get it down to where you’re comparing KCK to Lenexa and Olathe,” Oakman said. “That’s what our focus is.”

Four strategies

Oakman has employed four different methods to bring down homicides, robberies and other crimes: what he calls “internal value”; a mix of violent crime reduction strategies; a new fentanyl epidemic approach; and community engagement.

“Internal value” of patrol:

In addition to building trust between officers and the community, Oakman has inserted staff members into community events. For instance, officers and detectives are coaches for a yearly football camp, where youth learn conflict resolution and anger management skills.

He has also asked officers for input on how the department operates, while singling out bad officers. During his two years, Oakman has cut 12 officers, who were either fired or resigned after being warned they would be fired. The violations included using excessive force or failing to use proper search and seizure constitutional protections, he said. Good officers want to see bad ones reprimanded for misconduct, Oakman said.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is, officers complain about bad officers just as much as the community,” he said. “They want to see them held accountable, they want to see them terminated.”

The department also constantly reviews officers’ activities, and one person reviews all video shot from body cameras or in-car video as their sole job, he said.

Violent-crime reduction initiatives

These include a Real Time Intelligence Crime Center; a Risk for Retaliation program, which identifies people who may want to lash out at another after a shooting; a Cold Case Squad; a five-person Victim Services Unit; and a focused deterrence program, much like the Partners for Peace program in Kansas City, Missouri.

On a quarterly basis, KCK Police focus on what Oakman calls “trigger-pullers” and people who have outstanding warrants.

“We go about it with a spear, not a net,” he said. “That means you have to put the right people in jail.”

A 48-hour post-shooting visibility initiative calls for a police presence in any neighborhood where a shooting has occurred, and response is dictated by whatever is needed, Oakman said, whether it's enforcement, area canvasses or victims’ services.

“The neighborhood still feels comfortable when they see the police in that neighborhood for the next 48 hours,” he said.

One of the initiatives Oakman is most proud of is a domestic violence lethality screen the department implemented last January with help from a state grant. When officers respond to a domestic violence call, they must fill out a standard checklist that determines if the victim needs to be removed from the home or needs other services.

While most police departments have been doing this for a long time, often aided by local shelters, KCK never used one. Oakman said he also added an accountability system, so if officers fail to fill out the forms, they are reprimanded.

Oakman said he decided to use the lethality screens after noticing there were 15 homicides attributed to domestic violence in 2022. Last year, there were four, a 75% drop.

A different approach to fentanyl

Oakman, who worked in the narcotics unit during the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s, said law enforcement used a “horrible approach,” essentially prosecuting or jailing anyone involved. In early 2022, Oakman decided to combat the problem by responding to every fentanyl overdose, whether the person survived or not.

“We use the user as a victim-slash-witness,” he said. “Our education and prevention is geared toward the user. Our enforcement is geared towards the dealer and the supplier.”

Oakman said that by tracking the dealers, detectives often found people involved in shootings, homicides and robberies. They have arrested 19 individuals, who were later prosecuted for causing bodily harm or death based on a drug sale.

In addition, last year, police recovered 370,000 fentanyl pills, 50,000 pounds of the drug, and 360 firearms.

“That’s 360 firearms that are not used in robberies, not used in shootings, not used in homicides,” Oakman said.

It’s all attributable to responding to every fentanyl overdose, Oakman said.

“It does two things. One, the family is willing to cooperate with you right there because they want to find out who gave their loved one this stuff,” he said. “Two, it shows them that we care about our community.”

Community engagement

In addition to the football camps, KCKPD participate in an annual peace walk, two youth academies aimed at kids ages 12 to 15, four community cookouts and a program aimed at getting underserved youth drivers’ education and a drivers’ license in an attempt to reduce traffic violations.

Because KCK has a large Hispanic population, Oakman said establishing a minority community liaison has also been important to community engagement.

Officers specifically reached out to undocumented people, who were being “terrorized by gangs” who falsely told them they would be deported if they talked to police. After six Spanish-language versions of their Citizen's Academies — an eight-week class designed for residents seeking better understanding of the basics of law enforcement and police policies — Oakman said they reached two goals.

“As we engaged more with those communities and begat trust from those communities, they start reporting information,” he said. “So now that’s another key to the violent crime going down.”

Nikki Richardson, another member of the KCK Law Enforcement Advisory Board and a co-founder of Justice for Wyandotte, said the homicide rate has notably decreased, but the board hasn’t received clarity on the status of other violent crimes.

“We are pleased to see the improvement,” Richardson said. “Knowing that KCKPD was able to accomplish this with less police officers on staff, I find it encouraging to see that effective law enforcement is still possible.”

Lattimore said she believes police must be held accountable for any action that isn’t justified — but the community must, too. She cited drive-by shootings and other violence.

“We have to be concerned about violence in our community, no matter who is doing it,” she said, “but we need to make sure the police department doesn’t get a pass.”

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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