A ‘return home’: Karl Oakman sworn in as new police chief for Kansas City, Kansas

·7 min read

Karl Oakman was sworn in as the next police chief for Kansas City, Kansas, Monday morning.

Oakman, 51, who most recently served as a deputy chief across the state line in the Kansas City Police Department, said he was ready to roll up his sleeves and start listening to the department and the community.

“This is a very important honor for me not just as chief of police, but to return home to a city that raised me and kept me safe in this community,” Oakman told the small crowd gathered Monday, which included members of his family.

Oakman, who is a native of Kansas City, Kansas, and a graduate of J.C. Harmon High School, will be the city’s second Black police chief. He will oversee about 345 sworn officers and 150 civilian employees. The department’s annual budget is about $60 million.

“I think the most important thing about it is I understand Kansas City, Kansas,” Oakman said. “I understand what some people may be going through. When you have personal experience, you’re able to come up with better solutions to help all that’s involved.”

He is the first person from outside the department to assume the role of Kansas City, Kansas, police chief in recent memory.

Oakman said that after the ceremony, which finished shortly after 9 a.m., he planned to first meeting with senior command staff, then schedule meetings with the rest of the department.

One of the biggest challenges the department faces — one not unique to Kansas City, Kansas — is community perception, Oakman said.

“Even when we do the best job, we can always do better to work on that perception, because someone’s perception is their reality,” said Oakman, who totals 29 years of experience in law enforcement.

When asked about heading the police department as a Black man, Oakman said that he is police chief for all members of the Kansas City, Kansas, community.

“If you focus on things that make you different from others, you’ll never get anything accomplished,” Oakman said. “So what I always do is focus on what I can do, what experience, what information I can bring to improve the quality of life of the community as a whole regardless of your social-economic status, your race, your gender.”

Selecting a new chief

Oakman 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 officer was placed solely in the hands of County Administrator Doug Bach.

In May, 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 qualifications are impeccable,” Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said in May. “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, Missouri, in 2017 and oversaw the department’s administration bureau. He was 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 after his selection. “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.

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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 previous statement. “We certainly will miss his leadership, but I know he will make an excellent chief for the KCKPD.”

Department leadership, scrutiny

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.

“What I liked about him (Oakman) is at the gut level, he really gets being a cop,” Mayor David Alvey said when the candidates were announced. “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.”

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.

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.”

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