KC Police Chief Rick Smith forced out days after officer convicted of manslaughter

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Embattled Police Chief Rick Smith is being forced out as leader of the Kansas City Police Department after a meeting Tuesday with Mayor Quinton Lucas and a member of the Board of Police Commissioners.

Smith, Lucas and board president Mark Tolbert met at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall at their request, Lucas’ office said. No further details about the meeting were provided by the mayor’s office.

The meeting came four days after a Kansas City police detective was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a Black man in 2019.

Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said the board had the votes it needed to terminate Smith. Another source also confirmed that to The Star.

Smith, who was appointed in 2017, will retire in 2022, Capt. Leslie Foreman, a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement to The Star. When he was hired, he said he would stay no more than five years.

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

Multiple sources said Smith has agreed to leave March 31.

Grant said Smith is “trying to put a positive spin on basically what is in effect a termination,” she said, adding that the March date was agreed upon after “a compromise was struck.”

Lucas’ office said he will not discuss personnel matters in the press.

“He appreciates all the dedicated women and men of the Kansas City Police Department,” a spokeswoman for his office said.

Many community members have long called for Smith’s departure, citing the fatal shootings of several Black men by police, a tenuous relationship with the community which worsened last year during protests and an alarming number of homicides.

On Friday, a Jackson County judge found former Det. Eric DeValkenaere guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the 2019 shooting death of Cameron Lamb.

In the wake of the conviction, some people, including officers in Smith’s department, cast doubt that it would change policing in Kansas City as long as he remained in power.

Smith was appointed chief in August 2017.

Since then, there have been more than 600 homicides in Kansas City. That includes a record 182 homicides in 2020.

The first three years of Smith’s tenure saw Kansas City police fatally shoot twice as many Black men as the first three years of the previous chief.

Police have killed several Black men in recent years including Lamb, Terrance Bridges, Donnie Sanders and Malcolm Johnson. Bridges and Sanders were unarmed. Circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death are still under review.

Under Smith, the department publicly took the position that if a police officer fired, it must be justified.

During the protests in 2020 calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality, protesters called for Smith’s resignation. Following the protests, the department got body cameras and began requesting police shootings be investigated by an outside agency.

Earlier this year, a coalition of civil rights organizations renewed calls for Smith to be removed. The group cited a lack of confidence in his handling of officer misconduct, violent policies that target minorities and allegations of excessive use of force by the department.

The police department has paid out more than $5.8 million in claims over the past fiscal year, blowing past what was budgeted.

Settlements include use of force allegations, vehicular crashes involving officers and other legal matters.

Several groups have also requested the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate what they called, “patterns of numerous civil rights violations, discriminatory practices, and excessive and deadly force on the part of KCPD in the Black community,” Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City wrote in a letter to justice officials.

Grant later told The Star the Justice Department acknowledged receiving their request.

The relationship between Smith and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has also hit turbulent spots.

The police department has refused to hand over charging documents in at least four cases involving officers. Earlier this year, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said it has become a pattern when Kansas City police investigate their own officers.

Her office has charged five officers. That includes the DeValkenaere case in which prosecutors alleged police had planted evidence. It also includes two officers who were charged in an alleged assault of a transgender woman, an alleged assault of a 15-year-old boy, and an assault by an officer who allegedly pepper sprayed a man and his teenage daughter. Those cases remain pending.

In October, Smith said the department would continue to pursue all drug-crimes, even low-level arrests despite the prosecutor’s urging that police shift their focus to violent crimes.

The department is also has fewer minority officers and, some say, more aggressive than when Smith started.

While reporting a 2020 profile of Smith, The Star interviewed 40 people from across the city, including clergy, politicians, civil rights advocates, corporate leaders, neighborhood presidents and former colleagues, asking for their observations of Smith’s performance as police chief. Opinions were sharply divided by geographic and racial lines.

Smith, several people said, was frequently seen at business and neighborhood events in the city’s predominantly white Northland. But south of the river in predominantly Black sections, community groups said they had not been able to get his attention.

As a candidate for chief in 2017, Smith was supported by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, a police union known nationally for its steadfast defense of officers and its resistance to outside calls for reform.

Locally, the FOP is known for its influence both inside and outside the police department.

Some community leaders said Smith was not as connected to the public as the previous two chiefs — James Corwin, who served from 2004 to 2011, and now-Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté, who led the department from 2011 to 2017 — had been.

Smith has been praised for increasing the number of community interaction officers and staffing each patrol division with social workers.

In July 2020, Smith told The Star: “I’m working long hours to keep the organization running and doing the best job I can.”

Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, a social justice organization, said Smith has failed to hold his officers accountable.

“We need a police chief who believes that it’s her or his job to investigate all shootings, regardless of who pulled the trigger and to follow facts and evidence,” she said. “We are hopeful that new leadership means improved outcomes for the entire community.”

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