Monday, March 30, 2009

Kansas City: a city that works. Except on Thursdays

A sunny Thursday in October, 2009. Police officer Chuck Smith is on routine patrol in the afternoon, a low crime time as determined by statistics gathered by the human resource department in city hall.

HR staffers saved 10 percent in personnel costs by reducing the number of officers on patrol on low crime days. Seeing a bloated police administration, staffers also saved an additional 8 percent by eliminating the budget factor for dispatch replacement staff and patrol supervision. Dispatchers are still theoretically on call 24/7...unless someone gets sick and goes home early. Then supervisors fill in...unless the supervisor is on vacation and no substitute is put in place. The city is set to save enough money to fund a nice TIF somewhere.

A routine traffic stop. Officer Smith radios in the license plate number, but the computer isn’t working at the moment because the operator is on break with no one to fill in. But no problem, because Thursday is a low crime day.

Smith decides to proceed with issuing the ticket anyway. As he exits the patrol car, the driver opens his door, rolls to the ground and begins firing round after round from a revolver. Smith is hit in the shoulder but manages to fire off several rounds and thinks he has hit the assailant.

As Officer Smith stumbles back into his squad care for protection, the assailant returns to his car, gets in and speeds off. Bleeding profusely, Smith calls for help. There is no answer. He tries again. Again. Again.

Three cars drive by before one stops to help. The driver has a cell phone and calls 911, which answers and sends an ambulance. Smith is losing consciousness but tries one more time to call dispatch. This time, an answer. He reports the incident, gives the license plate number, bleeds.

The good Samaritan citizen stays at the officer’s side, frantic, until the ambulance arrives. Relieved of his duty, he wanders around the roadside as paramedics attend to Smith. He sees a revolver on the road and picks it up, thinking it might be important. There is no other officer yet on the scene and the Samaritan has to go to work. He puts the revolver in his glove compartment and decides to call the police after he is off work.

A few miles away at the Ward Parkway shopping center, gunshots ring out. Customers at Starbucks are scrambling as bullets penetrate the windows. A woman with a cell phone sees the mayhem from across the parking lot and calls 911. 911 alerts police dispatch. The dispatcher is not on break and sends out the alert.

In a meeting with the KC Star editorial board meeting earlier in 2009, city council representatives admitted that budget cuts to the police department would likely reduce response time to calls. Editorial writers called for reduction in “top heavy” administration while leaving officers on the street.

But when it came time to make the cuts, city administrators decided they could cut the usual replacement factor used for calculating fill-in personnel for 24/7 types of operations, such as police and detention centers. And for good measure, they cut the training budget, always an easy target.

So there are officers available to respond to the 911 calls, but they are relatively inexperienced, and there is no experienced command staff member within south zone available to go to the scene. A commander is attending to a problem in the north zone, a 20 minute drive away.

The officers approach the shopping center and see bodies, shot in the head, in two cars outside Starbucks. They enter the shopping center and see a man walking toward a Target store firing weapons as shoppers dive for cover. Acting quickly, they shoot and kill the “suspect”, likely saving a dozen lives.

But the bodies in the cars outside Starbucks are left unattended because a commanding officer is not yet on scene to take charge of the inexperienced officers. No one has yet called crime scene technicians. A teenager wanders by the car and unsecured crime scene and picks up bullet casings as a souvenir.

A bystander calls the Kansas City Star to alert a reporter about the incident. But the Star has furloughed most of its crime reporters, and no one is available to go to the scene. A blogger in Independence, however, knows someone who works at Starbucks and calls to get the story.

Officer Smith survived the shooting. He wounded his assailant, causing him to lose a revolver at the scene of the traffic stop. Unfortunately, the weapon found by the good Samaritan could not be used as evidence at trial because the chain of custody of the weapon could not be adequately documented. When the good Samaritan called the police after work, no one was available for two days to meet the citizen, who had moved the revolver from his car and into his garage.

Defense attorneys maintained that it was possible the weapon in the garage was not, in fact, the weapon used in the attack. Fingerprints on the weapon were unusable because the good Samaritan had shown the revolver to several neighbors, including several gun interested guys who checked the chamber for bullets. The assailant could not be charged for the attack on the officer.

The absence of bullet casings outside the Starbucks at the shopping center crime scene became a major controversy in the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the police for the death of the gunman. Officer Smith was not allowed to testify at trial that he encountered the assailant in a traffic stop because there was no admissible evidence that the officer had been shot by a gun in the possession of the assailant.

Plaintiff’s lawyer claimed there was no probable cause to believe the bodies had been killed at the shopping center because there were no spent shells. Therefore, the officers used excessive force in subduing the man inside the mall. Attorneys argued that, though mentally ill, the man could have been arrested without shooting him. The jury was not allowed to hear testimony by officers that they saw two dead bodies in cars as they entered the shopping mall.

Because of inadequate documentation and questionable supervision of the crime scene, the police department settled the lawsuit for $6 million rather than risk the punitive judgment of an irate citizenry.

Editorial writers for the Kansas City Star decried the sloppy management of the police department, declaring that a supervisor should have been on duty to respond to the shopping center to secure the crime scene and protect evidence. They also attacked the police chief for allowing city staffers to assume that Thursdays are low crime days, saying that logic would hold that emergencies can happen at any time.

Though editorial writers praised Officer Smith, police administration was criticized for allowing officers to approach cars without first obtaining a license check. The police chief responded that it was policy for officers to obtain such checks, but writers pointed out officers were inadequately trained. The chief pointed out that training budgets had been cut, and writers maintained that good training could have been preserved if training staff offices had eliminated more civilian personnel and fewer sworn officers.

Bloggers raged about the police department’s abuse of force. Liberals wanted the police officers fired for failing to protect the rights of people with mental illness. Conservatives wanted plaintiff’s lawyers disbarred and activist judges removed from the bench.

City council members who cut the police department budget by $6 million dollars claimed that they meant for the police department to save $6 million not by reducing the number of dispatchers, officers and supervisors but by using cutting edge technology to reduce typing costs.

Kansas City. A city that works. Except on Thursdays.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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