Kansas City police, now is the wrong time to give Black pastors the silent treatment

·5 min read

If the Kansas City Police Department is at all serious about building the trust with the community that’s been missing for some time now, in order to curb violence and solve homicides, then its leaders are going to have to do something they haven’t tried. They are going to have to try listening, even when it hurts.

They don’t have much practice in listening to critics instead of talking over and past them. And no doubt it’s far more pleasant to listen to the uninterrupted praise of the board of police commissioners, who only tell them they’re the best in the country and anyone who says otherwise is the enemy.

But the first negative word can’t be the last word, and that’s where things stand right now: The first time police heard searing criticism from some of the Black pastors they’d been meeting with, they cut off most communication. They’ve also denied cutting off most communication. And did we mention that the point of the group was to improve communication?

The Rev. Darron Edwards thought that area pastors’ efforts since last August to help stop the killings in Kansas City by improving communication between communities and the city’s distrusted police department were showing some signs of working. But then he went and questioned the way officers shot and killed a man they were arresting, and that was the first and last straw, he says, plus all of the straws in between.

In the month since then, he says, police have been giving clergy the silent treatment.

“I was hearing from somebody with KCPD every single day,” said Edwards, lead pastor of the United Believers Community Church. That was before June 1, when he publicly called the March 25 police shooting of Malcolm Johnson an execution. Since then, he said, the talking has stopped. If police are still talking, he said, it’s not with him and he’s been their main point of contact.

“I have not spoken to KCPD in three weeks. They are not talking to us. Not sharing with us. And meanwhile the murder rate in this city keeps climbing.” There have been 174 homicides in Kansas City this year. Clearly the police and pastors partnership is a life and death matter. Way too important for either side to shut down for any reason.

Police spokesman Jacob Becchina says Edwards has it wrong, that clergy “still receive weekly correspondence from the KCPD.” Which would still be a huge step back from the daily communication Edwards describes. So what’s that about?

Police feel ‘ambushed’ by critics of Malcolm Johnson shooting

On June 22, community interaction officer Lance Lenz sent an email he shared with dozens of local clergy, police officials, neighborhood leaders and elected officeholders, including Mayor Quinton Lucas, saying police felt “ambushed” by pastors criticizing video of the shooting that seemed to contradict what police have said led to Johnson’s death on the floor of a gas station convenience store.

The email said some faith leaders were backing away from the community-police relationship building initiative called Getting to the Heart of the Matter because Edwards and two other Black pastors had turned it into “a platform for activism, and they wished to remain in the realm of Faith leadership.”

Edwards says he hasn’t heard that from his fellow clergy. “Pastors speak to pastors,” he told The Star Editorial Board. “If they had an issue they would just pick up the phone.”

Besides, he said, “being the voice for the voiceless, and helping those who have been bruised by life is how we do faith.” Black clergy, he said, “view faith as social action. You can’t do faith and distance yourself from oppression in your own Jerusalem.” And likewise, police probably are not going to improve communication or build any trust in the community if they slam the door whenever something is said that they don’t like.

Edwards said he called Johnson’s death an execution, because “I was amplifying the voices in the street. That’s what our community expects,” and what KCPD leadership needed to hear. “The first time I said it I was face to face with Chief Rick Smith. I told him it looked to me like that was an execution. He didn’t correct me.”

Was Smith not listening? Because that was the time to talk it out. This whole clergy-as-community-liaisons arrangement is supposed to be a way for police to hear what the community is saying, and what it needs from officers.

When Getting to the Heart of the Matter started last summer, after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Smith and U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said they were collaborating with clergy because faith leaders are the ones “in the business of sharing truth that changes hearts.”

Edward said police backing away from the daily communication he had going with them, now has him thinking they weren’t sincere.

”I think what they wanted was a black face to be more of a ‘back the blue,’ pro-police person. They wanted someone to speak to the community to bring calm but not to bring solutions.That’s how I view this.”

If he’s wrong about that, the way to prove that would be to pick up the phone.