As Kansas City continues to see increases in violent crime, new Kansas City, Missouri, Police Chief Rick Smith says he’s doubling down on community policing.
The chief, who was selected in July, says he wants to expand the number of community interaction officers.
He's also embedded a social worker in the Central Patrol Division. Gina English had been at the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, a collaboration between law enforcement, prosecutors and government aimed at reducing violent crime.
The new chief believes a non-uniformed employee of the force can be a valuable presence in sensitive situations.
English says she has a lot of freedom to define her job. She accompanies officers on nuisance calls, or calls of a non-law enforcement nature, which are the majority. She directs community members to resources. Recently, she stood before a class of high schoolers at De LaSalle High School to talk about an idea she had for a photography project.
"I want you to shine a light on the positive in your community," English says to a dozen semi-enthusiastic students. "And I want to take a wall in a coffee house, or like at Central Patrol where I work, to show your work."
She also explains official policies, like the city curfews at the five entertainment districts.
"Did you know (there is) an all - year curfew?" she asks. "It’s 11:00 [P.M.] on the weekends."
A girl with hot pink highlights in her hair raises her hand and says there's a reason the curfews may be controversial. She says many African American kids feel they're treated differently than white kids by police.
She just wanted to use her first name, which is Tae.
"Like white kids see police and they’re like, 'that’s my friend,'" says Tae, who only wants to use her first name. "Because when you go into a suburban area, it’s like 'oh, the police are nice, they’re our friends.' When you go into the city it’s like you see police yelling and beatin' on their daddy and pushing kids and stuff.”
English squats on her heels to meet Tae face to face at her desk. She says she's here to listen and to try and help police understand her feelings.
English reminds Tae she has had positive experiences with police.
When Tae was young, she says her brother died in his sleep, and the police came. They noticed there was no food in the refrigerator.
"And the police bought milk and cereal," she says. "And we had cereal. And that was, for real, the only good experience (I've) had, and that was in 2005."
The idea of a social workers collaborating with police has been around for decades. But historically, they’ve worked alongside law enforcement, not embedded within it.
Kansas City’s Chief Rick Smith says he’s pleased with the successes he’s already seeing with English. He cites an example of a home police had visited multiple times where the owner had been threatening to shoot neighbors. Police had not been successful getting the homeowner to talk with them.
"(English) went to house, knocked on the door and he let her in immediately," the chief said. "By the end of that she’d contacted his mother, worked on a program and within three days he’s getting the help he needed."
The social worker is just one way Smith says he's expanding the community policing effort. He also wants to add extra community interaction officers, so each of the five patrols has two (the entire KCPD employs almost 1000 officers).
Community activist Andre Thurman says these are good things, but for community policing to really work, it must be done by people who live in the community.
"I mean it’s just that cut and dry," he says. "You can’t call it community policing if you go and hire people outside the community to police people who live there. That’s not community policing. That’s hiring security."
Counselors at De LaSalle school say many kids here have suffered trauma. Some have seen a parent killed or incarcerated, or come to school after a violent night at home. Police are frequently involved.
Gina English says she understands how people might question her legitimacy in the African American community. But she says she grew up "Mexican in a white world," and understands being on the outside.
She hopes her role can be to build trust.
"I (hope to) become a part of a more positive social network for a family or an individual," she says, "so when there is an act of violence ... instead of reaching out for retaliation, maybe now they reach out for problem solving."
It’s too early to gauge the impact of the police department's new initiatives. There are several other agencies that appear to have similar approaches to violence-prevention and engagement. It may be that the new police chief’s first big challenge is to figure out if and how these efforts overlap.
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. Reach her on Twitter @laurazig or email firstname.lastname@example.org.