KANSAS CITY, MO. (NewsNation Now) From 2019 to 2020 the murder rate in the United States rose 30 percent, the largest single-year increase in over a century. Overall, violent crimes in 2020 went up by 5% over the previous year.
As communities across the country try to curb the uptick in violence, many of the police departments tasked with investigating those crimes face a staffing crisis.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Biden denounced the “defund the police” slogan that has become popular with progressive members of the Democratic Party, instead calling for more funding.
“The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities,” Biden said in a moment that drew bipartisan applause.
Kansas City Police Chief Richard Smith agrees with that sentiment. A KCPD veteran with more than 34 years of experience, Smith says the state of policing has changed and officers will need more training to deal with the challenges of the future.
That’s assuming police agencies have new recruits to train, something Smith and others are not taking for granted as departments across the country struggle to fill open positions.
“When I took the test back 34 years (ago), I think there were 400 of us in the academy class. We gave a test a while back and there were four,” Smith said.
NewsNation’s Brian Entin sat down with Smith to discuss the alarming rise in violent crime and the challenge of recruiting new officers in America today.
on what it’s like to be a police officer today
Smith said being a police officer in 2022 is a “struggle” and said he has noticed a divide between young, newly recruited officers and their family members who often wonder why they would choose a career in policing given today’s environment.
He said increased scrutiny has made it less desirable and more difficult to be a police officer today.
“Think about living your life on a body camera and making calls and people reviewing all that and judging everything, every decision you make on the fly, under pressure, night after night. … It is a difficult profession,” Smith said.
After more than 34 years on the force, Smith has seen his share of highs and lows, including the community reaction to Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King. He thinks police are more under the microscope today than even then.
“I would say this is probably the time policing has drawn the most attention,” Smith said.
on the struggle to recruit new officers
The chief said his agency, the Kansas City Police Department, is currently 225 positions short of being fully staffed. The majority of those openings are for officers who would be patrolling the streets.
Fewer officers also means less time for proactive police work, such as traffic stops, since the officers who are working can hardly keep up with urgent calls.
Smith fears the inflammatory rhetoric directed toward police in recent years has made it more difficult to recruit and retain talent.
“I always tell community leaders, we can’t have it both ways. You can’t go out and bash the police and then say, ‘Why don’t we have good police?'”
Smith said recruitment is slowly improving but he does not expect the problem to be solved in the short term. In part, that’s because attrition will continue even as positions remain unfilled.
That attrition includes Smith, who plans to retire this year. He said the current state of policing did not influence his decision.
So what are police departments doing to attract new talent? Among other things, KCPD is offering incentives to employees who recruit people into the job.
“We think that probably our best recruitment tool is the people who work here,” Smith said.
on the impact of covid-19
The arrival of the coronavirus in March 2020 changed life across the country, but Smith does not think the rise in violent crime is a direct result of the pandemic. As for what specifically caused the surge, the chief thinks it’s hard to pin down.
“I don’t know if it was demonstrations in the streets and people saw that and took, you know, liberties with their actions. I don’t know what happened,” he said.
The chief acknowledged that the pandemic made it more challenging to do community police work, specifically after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.
“We didn’t have those interactions that normally we would have. “Hey let’s get 500 people in a community meeting, let’s hash some of this out,” there was none of that. So I would say as we come out of this COVID and we’re having those abilities to have those discussions, I do think that’s helping us and helping policing as a profession, as a whole,” said Smith.
on how policing has changed
In addition to increased scrutiny, Chief Smith says day-to-day police work has changed significantly since he started more than 30 years ago. Specifically, Smith says officers are frequently being called to situations involving people in mental health crises, something most officers aren’t trained to deal with.
“The criminal justice system has become the mental health system because there is no real bona fide mental health system,” Smith said, “So the people screaming on the street, in a bad place, in some sort of mental health distress, we get those calls, we are the first responders, we are the ones to take care of that.”
Smith thinks police officers need more training to deal with situations involving mental health issues and supports involving social workers in those efforts.
“We have a social worker that’s on staff, helping our officers every day with those kinds of situations,” he said.