Unified Government of Wyandotte County officials on Friday named Karl Oakman as the next police chief for Kansas City, Kansas.
Oakman, 51, a deputy chief across the state line in the Kansas City Police Department, was one of four finalists vying for the job. The other finalists were Kansas City, Kansas, Police Deputy Chief Pamela Waldeck; Vince E. Davenport, an associate deputy director for the U.S. Department of Justice, and Rich Austin, who is chief of the Milton Police Department in Georgia.
Under the Unified Government, the decision to select a new top cop was placed solely in the hands of County Administrator Doug Bach.
Bach said Oakman has developed many different initiatives during his career in Kansas City, including community policing, inclusion, youth engagement, excelling in recruitment and officer wellness.
“His passion for the job just set him apart to be the next leader and the next police chief for our community,” Bach said Friday.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said he was excited to see the selection of Oakman, who is a native of Kansas City, Kansas, and a graduate of J.C. Harmon High School. Oakman will be the city’s second Black police chief.
“His qualifications are impeccable,” Dupree said. “Chief Oakman is a fellow Dotte and District 500 alumni. His lived experience in Kansas and Missouri as a patrol officer, homicide detective, captain, major, deputy chief and now the police chief will take our department and community safety to the next level. The District Attorney’s Office looks forward to a healthy collaborative relationship.”
Oakman was appointed deputy police chief in Kansas City in 2017 and oversees the department’s administration bureau. He is responsible for the human resources division, information services and the Kansas City Regional Crime Lab.
Prior to that promotion, as a police major Oakman oversaw the department’s logistical support division, which consisted of 911 communication center and the fleet operations unit. He also served as liaison to the Kansas City mayor, city manager and Kansas City Council.
“This is pretty, pretty exciting,” Oakman said Friday. “I tend to look at myself, a young man who grew up in the housing projects in Argentine — I’m returning, about 30 years later, the chief of police of that same community, and that was only the result of adults taking the time to lead and guide me in the right direction.
“As your new chief, I will work with the staffing community to build on the department’s successes, and develop creative and innovative strategies to address our challenges. And I have three simple goals for the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department: That is strengthened relationships with all many members of the community to reduce crime, improve trust and recruiting, continue to develop a diverse professional workforce through transparency, Officer wellness, training and career development.”
Oakman played wide receiver at Northwest Missouri State University before transferring to Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri and earning a degree in psychology.
In congratulating Oakman, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith thanked him for “outstanding service” over his many years with KCPD.
“It has been an honor to work with him throughout his 29 years here, most recently as part of our executive team,” Smith said in a statement. “We certainly will miss his leadership, but I know he will make an excellent chief for the KCKPD.”
Selecting a new chief
Since September 2019, the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department has been led by Interim Police Chief Michael York. The search for a new chief began more than a year ago and was delayed in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The police department counts about 345 sworn officers and 150 civilian employees. The annual budget is about $60 million.
Following the announcement, Mayor David Alvey said the city had four excellent candidates with “good, strong qualities.”
“But what I liked about him (Oakman) is at the gut level, he really gets being a cop,” Alvey said. “I don’t know how else to put it, I just had a gut feeling about him that he had a real sense kind of a gut feeling for KCK and a gut feeling for law enforcement and a gut feeling for the community, all of those things working together.”
York was selected to serve as police chief following the resignation of former chief Terry Zeigler, whose 29-year career with the department ended under heavy scrutiny related in part to a police cadet who sued the department. She alleged Zeigler fired her for reporting a sexual assault at the hands of her supervisor, an officer.
Social justice advocacy groups held protests in June 2019 and demanded the termination of Zeigler. They also called for outside investigations of allegations against KCKPD, saying the department’s office of internal affairs is inadequate to review current and past allegations of misconduct.
One such controversy hanging over the department is the past conduct of detective Roger Golubski, who has been accused of using his police badge to exploit vulnerable Black women for sexual favors and coerce some into providing false testimony in cases he investigated.
Golubski, who left the department in 2010 after 35 years, has denied the accusations.
The search for a new police chief took place as communities across the country have demanded reforms and greater police accountability.
A recent community survey commissioned by the local government found most residents in Kansas City, Kansas, are seeking a police chief who can help build community relationships.
Roughly 62% of 250 people surveyed cited improving community relationships among the top three priorities the new police chief should focus on. Respondents also picked reducing crime and advancing police technology as their other choices.
Following Zeigler’s resignation, several organizations lobbied the local government for changes to the process that might engage community input. One change made during the chief’s selection process was the formation of an advisory committee consisting of business and community leaders.
The Rev. Rick Behrens, senior pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, said groups like MORE2 have sought someone who was familiar with the community but was from outside of the police department.
“MORE2 has been demanding enhanced accountability and dramatic reform of a department that has turned a blind eye to abuse and corruption,” Behrens said in an email. “The community has recognized that the answer to these deep-seated issues must come from an outside reformer.”
“Our prayer, as a community, is that this new appointment would be one who listens to those abused by the department and institutes deep reforms for the shalom (well-being) of everyone,” he said.
Oakman is the first person from outside the department to take the role of Kansas City, Kansas, police chief in recent memory.
Carolyn Wyatt, a longtime community activist and member of the local parks board, said she and a majority of the members of the advisory commission were pushing for Oakman to be selected.
She said she was happy to see Bach, the county administrator, name Oakman to the post, saying he did the “right thing” following community input.
Oakman was “the most qualified” — especially “for this time,” she said.
“With the way the police department is structured, and the problems that they’ve had, they needed a change,” Wyatt said. “They needed something where they could see a little hope; where things could change and be different.”