Wichita police officers raise concerns in focus groups, blame leaders for some problems

·6 min read

Morale in parts of the Wichita Police Department is at an all-time low, according to comments made by patrol officers in focus groups last fall.

And top police leadership is more concerned with public image and assigning blame than addressing the issues, according to comments in the focus groups, which involved 26 officers from the south and east bureaus.

“The strongest sentiment expressed … was a lack of appreciation of police patrol work by executive staff of (the Wichita Police Department),” according to a summary of the four focus groups conducted by Wichita State University.

“The items cited as support for this lack of appreciation is the chronic understaffing, creation of special teams at the direct expense of patrol staffing, lack of resources to deal with the growing mental health crisis, lack of recognition of the skills required to do good patrol work, and a promotion structure that does not value patrol experience.

“Participants indicated staffing conditions in patrol are among the worst of their experience.”

Wichita police officials did not respond to requests for comment on Friday afternoon.

Staffing shortages are a chronic problem for the department, according to the report. But other issues that surfaced in the focus groups raise new concerns.

The focus groups involved 13 officers from the south bureau and 13 from the east bureau, ranging in experience from one to 18 years. The mix was half women and half men, who were split up for the focus groups done in August and September.

The employees in the focus groups represent roughly 3% of the nearly 900-person department.

Chase Billingham, a Wichita State University professor of sociology, said focus groups aren’t meant to provide generalizations about sentiments of an entire population, but do provide more thorough details on a topic than a sample survey would.

Here’s what officers in the focus groups had to say:

Staffing and pay: Officers felt their pay doesn’t reflect the work they do. And the “lack of adequate patrol staff was mentioned as a serious threat to job satisfaction and a cause of low morale,” the report said. One officer, with “many years of experience,” cited the largest number of resignations in 2021 than in any other year they were there, the report said.

Officers also said an unnecessary number of specialty teams took officers off the street.

Mental health calls: The calls often tie up officers for long periods of time. The report said the “community has unrealistic expectations” of officers being able to resolve those calls. An example officers gave was responding to calls about out-of-control children who don’t pose any threat.

The mental health team, called ICT-1, is a good resource but there’s only one team, officers said, adding there should be a team for each bureau.

Efforts to diversify: Officers in the focus group said efforts to diversify the department have led to the hiring of under-qualified people who don’t stay long and who may jeopardize the “safety for all officers,” the report said.

“The high turnover rate among first year officers shows that it may be helpful to improve potential officers(‘) understanding of what the job will be like before investing in training them,” the report says.

Diversity efforts also have created the perception that promotions are not based on merit, the report said.

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, who said he was tasked with diversifying the department when he took over in January 2016, has touted the department’s diversity as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“The face of the department has been forever changed,” he said in December. “I’m really proud of that.”

Other issues mentioned in the focus groups:

  • Officers at the south bureau complained about the piloted three-shift system meant to help ease staffing shortages.

  • Women in the focus groups said some of their male counterparts don’t understand their roles in calls and arrests.

  • Officers felt “strong support” from leadership at their bureaus and said they had positive relationships with the community, the report says.

Dr. Delores Craig-Moreland, a criminal justice professor at Wichita State, sent the focus group results to police officials in October.

Wichita State denied an open records request for the emails, saying the research had not been completed. Craig-Moreland wouldn’t answer questions from an Eagle reporter and hung up the phone.

The two emails were provided to The Eagle by someone familiar with the documents who is not identified because of fear of retaliation on the job.

The focus group results are part of a larger study done at the south and east bureaus; complete results could be released to police officials at any time, a source told The Eagle.

Craig-Moreland, who oversaw the focus groups, had concerns about some of the comments officers made and whether she should put them in the final report, according to an email she sent.

On Oct. 12, she sent a draft of the report and told police staff that she wanted the two captains who commissioned the study to tell her “whether the remarks are clear and will not result in adverse treatment of the officers who participated.” She said the findings would become part of a quarterly report “unless there is sentiment to withhold the report.”

In an email she sent two days later, she said there were added comments that mainly have to do with attitudes toward “executive staff and their goals.”

Among the added comments in the email was a section on comments from the east bureau that says “executive staff are more concerned about PR (public relations), ignore serious issues.”

It further says the executive staff are “adept at avoiding scrutiny by blaming others.”

Climate survey

Former Wichita Capt. Kevin Kochenderfer said the completed study would be more comprehensive since it included input from officers at all levels in the two bureaus.

He was the impetus behind the study.

Kochenderfer was reassigned to the east bureau in mid-2020 and wanted to get a feel for any problems he might need to address.

Kochenderfer said he talked with south bureau Capt. Wendell Nicholson about surveying his new bureau. Nicholson, who had done a survey before, pointed him toward Wichita State to help, Kochenderfer said.

“I have thick skin and want to know what’s working, what wasn’t working,” he said.

Kochenderfer, who had been with the department for 27 years, retired shortly after getting the results, citing an opportunity that he couldn’t pass on as director of security for Ascension Kansas.

Nicholson declined an interview.

Kochenderfer said he had been open with leadership about having a survey done, but heard the results have upset some of the department’s leadership.

“I don’t know what the big concern is with any of that,” he said. “The only thing that I can surmise from it all is that the comments or the results from one of the focus groups or something was unflattering. I really don’t know why that would be such a big deal. That’s the purpose behind doing a climate survey.”

He said the survey should give officials something to build on.

“This isn’t a personality contest,” he said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting