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Looking back at a KCK mayor’s efforts to improve police-community ties following his re-election loss

By:
DAWN BORMANN NOVASCONE

 

When tensions increased last year in Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Mark Holland sought to build bridges between the police and his community’s diverse population. But he also made a high-profile misstatement and had to make reassessments along the way. And he did so in midst of a deteriorating relationship with union employees at the fire and police departments, in a large part because of his push to restructure contracts (which other elected officials had quietly criticized but never pursued). His story is a reminder of the difficult path elected officials face in trying to foster change without upsetting the apple cart. Holland ultimately lost his bid for re-election in November 2017 to David Alvey. 

Years before he stepped into elective office, the Rev. Mark Holland learned something about addressing complex challenges.

Successful pastors don’t hide difficulties from their flock. They engage their voices to look for solutions. Holland has applied the same philosophy to governing during his first term as mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. It’s a tenure that will end sooner than many people expected because Holland was narrowly defeated in his re-election bid by David Alvey, a fifth-generation Wyandotte Countian, Rockhurst High School administrator and a director on the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities.

“There’s this squeamishness I find among elected officials. They don’t want to tell people bad news,” he says. “It’s our church. It’s our city. Tell people what the issues are, but don’t try to protect your citizens from the challenges you’re facing. Share it with them, and invite their input.”

Getting people involved, he says, allows everyone to gain an understanding and work together on solutions.

“If you’ve got a problem with violence, share that with your community,” he says. “If you have a problem with community relations with your police, talk about it.”

Holland’s supporters, and even some of his critics, give him credit for his willingness to talk about and tackle tough issues. On the same day he lost re-election, Holland, on the nomination of Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James, received a 2017 Consensus Civility Award for his commitment to involve residents in decision-making on a range of topics, including police and community relations. But things haven’t always gone well. Alvey told The Kansas City Star following his victory that Holland “has an arrogance that runs people off.”

Last year, Holland organized a series of community forums designed to help ease tensions and allow residents and the police to move forward. The informal sessions allowed people to ask questions about police tactics. It gave law enforcement officers a chance to explain procedures. Above all, it was meant to open dialogue.

But opening a conversation, as Holland learned, didn’t come without risks. Was it possible to work on the challenges facing policing in a community without alienating law enforcement officers? Would expressing support for law enforcement make those who feel they have legitimate concerns about policing feel excluded? Is there a way to push for change without rocking the boat so much that you upset too many people?

To what extent, even, are November’s election results an answer to those questions? That’s a topic worthy of debate, because a mayor’s leadership challenges are complex. It’s not like improving police-community relations was the only issue Holland, who declined to talk further with The Journal after the vote, dealt with over the past four years. For Holland, the conversations about policing began as the community faced lingering concerns about high property taxes and disappointment among some residents about redevelopment lacking in the urban core while the area around The Legends added businesses. There was also a growing rift between Holland and public safety workers – the unified government’s largest expenditure and a powerful political force in the county.

What should elected leaders of the future learn about leadership on tough issues from examining Holland’s experiences?

Learning from a misstep

One possibility is that the task of orchestrating a dialogue about policing amid complicated circumstances is a delicate, difficult one that can put an official in the uncomfortable position of balancing obligations to stakeholders who have very different vantage points on the issue. These are conversations that have no clear road map and require a willingness to move forward through trial and error. Mistakes, as Holland found, are inevitable, and he tried to learn from them.

By the summer of 2016, it was clear to Holland and likely every American mayor paying attention to the national narrative that law enforcement agencies had problems with community relations, especially when dealing with communities of color.

Although the Ferguson, Missouri, riots and unrest had unspooled two years earlier, headline after headline decried the killings of minorities by law enforcement officers. Then the country saw several incidents in which police officers were targeted and killed. The July 7, 2016, ambush that killed five Dallas officers was one of the deadliest days in U.S. law enforcement history, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Kansas City, Kansas, had already experienced two devastating blows of its own.

In May, a high-profile detective, Brad Lancaster, was shot to death in the line of duty. In July, a beloved police captain, Robert D. Melton, was gunned down after a police chase. The violence stunned the community. And though city officials were quick to point out that the officers were not targeted as part of the national narrative, the community was on edge.

Holland, spurred by more than 60 members of the clergy, embarked on a series of community forums designed to discuss the violence and hostility. He says he used the forums to let the public know he stands behind the local police, fire and sheriff’s departments. That means supporting them as they shift policing strategies, too.

The listening sessions were followed up with a Facebook Live presentation featuring Kansas City, Kansas Police Department Chief Terry Zeigler and Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark A. Dupree Sr.

But it was an overall effort that would be complicated, at least temporarily, by the mayor’s own words.

After the police officers were killed, Holland and Zeigler stood united to try to help stitch together a wounded community.

But at a news conference about Melton’s death, Holland made a comment he would later regret. It started off well enough, with the mayor saying:

“Captain Melton’s death reopens a raw hurt still festering within our community. Further, in the two months between our officers’ deaths, our nation has erupted with violence.”

Then he said: “We have seen the loss of innocent lives at the hands of police, and we have seen the ambush and murder of police who were actively protecting the public. Our nation is in uncertain times.”

The “innocent lives” phrase offended several in the local law enforcement community. Melton’s sister-in-law, Lynn Melton, criticized Holland for using the term in the context of Melton’s death. Holland apologized repeatedly but despite that, Melton remains displeased with Holland’s approach.

“He hasn’t demonstrated in any way that he respects or wants to represent, in a favorable light, any kind of first responder,” Lynn Melton says.

As the mayor, police chief and district attorney held the Facebook Live wrap-up to discuss the community forums, it came up again. One person asked: “Police are disrespected daily, by residents and politicians, as we’ve seen from within our own government in the past year. What as a staff (elected officials) have you (Holland) done to make officers feel like they’re just not a tool to get beat on but a vital organization to our community’s safety?”

Holland acknowledges that his wording that day was a mistake. He also realizes that it’s one he could have avoided if he had checked in with law enforcement before he made it.

“The mistake would have been fixed had I simply given it to the chief to read before I read it, because he would have caught it. And so I apologize for that. I apologize to the family because I misspoke,” he said. “That comes back to the humility piece. I talk all the time. I’m going to misspeak.”

Holland says errors are the price of reaching out, to a certain extent.

“I think engagement is more important than getting it exactly right. You’re going to make mistakes. I don’t have any ego about it.”

It was hardly the first time that Holland has faced criticism in his role as mayor. He’d been at odds with a Unified Government commissioner who had also run for mayor, Ann Murguia, over issues such as ethics. The commission has at times been split over their differences. When you have authority, conflict can come with the territory.

But the situation with the Melton speech is a telling reminder of just how hard it can be to hold and test multiple interpretations and points of view, and how what we intend to say can sound very different to those who come to a situation with a different mindset.

The situation didn’t go away. It became a major talking point during Holland’s bid for a second term in office and became one of several reasons that Alvey filed for the mayor’s seat.

“Trying to draw the local story to the national narrative really seemed to me inappropriate and insensitive to the police officers and their families,” says Alvey, who held his election night victory party at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

Yet Alvey, a lifelong Wyandotte Countian with deep roots in the community, credits Holland with taking the time to listen to others. Still, he wonders why Holland has become attached to certain projects and not others pushed strongly by community members.

“I think he’s very attached to his own ideas,” Alvey says of Holland, whose proposals included the championing of a “healthy campus” to spur a revival of downtown. “I don’t mean to imply that he has bad intentions.”

Several critics have expressed anger that northeast Kansas City, Kansas, does not have a grocery store. Pastors in the northeast part of town have long argued that the grocery should be the city’s top priority. Several political leaders have tried but failed to woo a grocery store to the area.

It might seem unrelated to law enforcement, but frustration has a way of filtering into seemingly unrelated discussions because it makes it harder for the public to trust government officials.

Yet some of the criticism directed toward Holland during the election season troubled Rev. Jimmie L. Banks, the pastor at Strangers Rest Baptist Church. Banks says Holland has been a firm supporter of law enforcement and the forums are one example.

Holland, Banks says, listened to the community and law enforcement at a time in the nation’s history when dialogue was crucial. 

“In the forums there were people with strong negative feelings because of how they were treated by the police, because of how they were denied what they call equal opportunity for employment,” Banks says.

It gave government officials a chance to remind the community that they made long-term changes to public safety union contracts that would allow more diverse people to take advantage of the county’s top paying jobs. The forums allowed police to explain why many procedures are critical. It provided an outlet for those who might otherwise have turned to violence, or protest marches, to get government’s attention in a nonviolent but efficient way, Banks believes.

Holland and police officials, Banks said, took a listening approach to build understanding and create relationships. 

“You listen, you talk, you communicate,” Banks said. “Otherwise you’ve got people who will say I’ll try the other way.”

Bringing people to the table

The community forums Holland organized provided opportunities for him to both explain and listen. He and law enforcement officials explained the policies that government adopted to eliminate barriers that kept many Wyandotte County residents from obtaining high-quality jobs in the police, fire and sheriff’s departments.

Before Ferguson, the city had asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct studies of those three public safety departments, which account for 60 percent of every tax dollar the Unified Government spends. There were criticisms of employee recruiting, training and hiring. Minorities long complained that the system had catered to select families. When departments don’t reflect a community’s diversity, it lowers trust.

Among the Unified Government commissioners, Holland has led the charge to adopt policies that eliminated several barriers to hiring, including the requirement that all police applicants have a college degree. Other policies lowered the starting age for firefighters from 21 to 19 and moved the responsibility for promotions from the unions to the Unified Government human resources department.

“The devil was in the details,” Holland says.

The changes weren’t well received by the city’s unions, with whom Holland had been in contract negotiations.

Banks and other local officials, many who declined to speak publicly, believe that union officials haven’t taken kindly to some hiring policy changes, prompting a backlash.

“There has to be a certain level of a willingness of leaders to take a step back from the problems because I think the things that get in the way of leaders addressing problems are either defensiveness or ignorance,” he says.

But for all that he had done, Holland couldn’t anticipate every decision that needed to be made. 

Before the election, Holland says he learned early on that mobilizing people is impossible without a broad cross section at the table. In this case, officials had planned four forums but quickly realized they failed to engage the young. They added forums at all nine high schools in Kansas City, Kansas; Donnelly College; and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

“You can’t mobilize anybody you haven’t brought to the table. And don’t just bring people to the table to implement your solutions. Bring people to the table to identify what the solutions might be,” Holland says.

The exchanges with students were among the more honest and frank discussions, according to City Hall officials. Students wanted answers and asked pointed questions about police policies. They asked authorities for more engagement on social media and encouraged more dialogue.

Fighting progress?

But the listening sessions were hardly a slam dunk. Local Pastor Adrion Roberson helped facilitate them. He watched as city officials and police officers provided important information to residents. He listened as a handful of them voiced their concerns, distrust or pleasure about the police.

“I believe the mayor is sincere in really gathering information from constituents,” he says. But Roberson questions the follow through. What will change? Anything less than change would feel like a betrayal. Without change, Roberson wonders whether the forums might have been more about political agendas than meaningful input.

Roberson admires Holland for taking complex issues including policing in communities of color, especially when the powerful police and fire unions are unhappy with the mayor for shaking up hiring practices.

“We disagree on a lot of stuff, but I respect his attempt,” Roberson says.

Yet Roberson admits that years of government distrust left him feeling uneasy at times during the sessions. He saw instances of a good ol’ boy system and legacy hiring practices in policing that kept people of color feeling like they were on the outside looking in. He worried that by volunteering he might have endorsed a system he doesn’t always trust. He questioned what really had changed, knowing that an acquaintance was recently turned down for a law enforcement job. Was it a valid attempt at dialogue? Or posturing? Roberson is conflicted.

It’s hard for Roberson to ignore the past and trust government, including Holland.

It reinforced the daunting nature of the challenge at hand.

“If you’re the mayor in Wyandotte County with this decades and hundreds of years of systemic crap, how do you even consider maneuvering? How do you measure gains of movement and progress in a place that fights against it tooth and nail?”

Murguia, who says she’s moved on from disputes with Holland, points out that forums can be difficult for residents when they don’t see change. Asking for input doesn’t open dialogue if you’re not willing to listen and build the opinions that are offered into your political agenda – even if they don’t match your favorite projects.

“In my opinion, if you’re going to call a meeting about something, you better be ready to take action,” she said. “Because it’s confusing to the general public when you call them together and you ask their opinion and then they don’t see, hear or feel differently about anything.”

But Holland says he’s trying to look at a bigger picture, one that doesn’t respond quickly to decisions made by those with authority.

While community policing grabs the headlines, the challenges in Wyandotte County are more deeply rooted than that, in part because of racism, poverty, white flight, blight, education and much more.

“People don’t want to look at systemic issues around poverty and choice. People want it all to be individual choice. Because if it’s all individual choice, then you and I have no responsibility for it,” Holland says. “But if it’s systemic issues, then we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to make a difference.”

Inside his office, Holland relies on a massive city map to explain the city’s history of diversity.

“We’re one of the most diverse cities in the country,” Holland says, adding that the population is 42 percent white, 28 percent Latino and 26 percent African-American. It’s the kind of ethnic mix that more parts of the country are headed toward, based on demographic projections.

Holland understands the city’s history not because it’s a requirement of the job, but because he believes that to be able to move forward you must acknowledge what happened in the past. When someone demands answers to the problems that spark violence, blight and crime, Holland asks them if he should start pre-Civil War or with the National Housing Act of 1934, when the federal government authorized redlining, a form of discrimination in home financing that both hurt black neighborhoods and kept blacks out of white areas. 

“Our entire city of Kansas City, Kansas, was redlined from Third Street to 18th Street, from river to river,” he says.

It left devastating effects. The overt racism caused a monumental divide in education and jobs. Absentee landlords moved in as white families left the urban core, which left fewer owner-occupied homes and more owners with no commitment or care for the city’s future.

“There’s a one-to-one correlation between the redlined areas and poverty, crime, drugs – everything that’s wrong with America is in a one-to-one correlation with the redlined areas.”

It’s an important narrative to tell, he says.

Otherwise children grow up believing a false narrative, much like Holland heard from his own grandfather.

“He’d say, ‘Black people ruined downtown.’ When in fact wealthy white people in Washington, D.C., ruined our town,” Holland says.

The listening tour wasn’t always easy. Yet it was the right time to take the temperature among residents. Holland encourages other elected officials not to put off the complex, controversial issues.

“Take on your hardest challenges in the first term. There are a lot of people that will tell you to wait until you get re-elected. You’ll be waiting forever. Take on the hardest challenges, open up the dialogue, begin the process,” he says.

Solving deep-rooted problems will likely take more than four years, he admits.

It’s why, Holland says, he decided to immediately begin work to implement the U.S. Department of Justice’s study recommendation for the three public safety departments.

Even last spring Holland knew the effort might cost him. Months after that interview it became clear that that Holland’s relationship with the public safety unions was going to be a critical election issue. In late October local firefighters took it a step further by organizing a protest of a so-called mayoral plan to close fire stations and cut firefighters. The signs read “The city is burning us, are you next?,” according to The Kansas City Star.

Holland soundly dismissed the accusations and told a Star reporter it was “a display of political theater.” But the story dominated public gathering spaces where – regardless of policy – the damage was done.

It prompted a highly unusual social media post by former Mayor Carol Marinovich.

“We have a great fire department, many of them friends of mine. However, I am very disappointed in their use of scare tactics with my community,” she wrote on Facebook. “This is politically motivated as the election nears. Period. I know posting this will make them angry with me but I feel the necessity to speak out.”

Small Steps

Even as Holland’s relationships with public safety unions deteriorated, the community itself has taken small steps forward in improving relations between the police and the community. The city started a comprehensive crisis intervention training effort that Zeigler had embraced after he was named police chief in 2014. The chief also espoused a new paradigm of policing, including the idea of de-escalation techniques. He added a line to the department’s “safety first” motto in 2015 to include “courtesy always.”

“We work in a dangerous world. We have a good community, but you’ve got to be courteous to every citizen you come in contact with,” Zeigler says. “Since then our Internal Affairs complaints for attitude and conduct and harassment have dropped 52 percent. That is phenomenal.”

The small but subtle shifts have gotten attention. Although he’s been open to conversations and changes, Zeigler has not backed down from his commitment to the men and women in uniform.

In the face of criticism, Holland has also tried to emphasize his strong support for the police.

“I’m sympathetic because we’re asking them to respond to everything that’s wrong in America – on their shift,” he says. “They’re walking into a situation where they don’t know if they’re in harm’s way.”

Yet slow, intentional strategies aren’t always rewarded by people eager for change. But Holland is convinced it’s the right approach for him.

“My model of leadership … it gets criticized sometimes because people say, ‘We need somebody to do something. We want action!’ Well, me too,” he says with a raised tone. “We have limited resources. I want to make sure the actions we take are the actions that are actually going to make a difference. I’ve been accused of moving too slowly on some things, but I’ll tell you the impact is long-term.”

The new public safety hiring policies will give more Wyandotte County residents a chance
at well-paying government jobs, but he can’t promise change overnight.

“You can’t just go out and say, ‘Well, we’re going to have 25 percent of our police officers be black next year.’ That’s not possible. And you can’t discriminate based on race. What you need to do, though, is recruit actively within your community and create opportunities for people so you don’t have to be a legacy to know how to get through the system,” Holland says.

Ultimately it comes back to his pastoral roots and sharing the city’s problems with his flock, a bigger constituency as mayor. It’s a job he had hoped to keep, but not at the expense of tackling the tough issues he believed needed addressing.

“It’s not all great news, but it’s our news. If we’re not willing to tell the truth, because I believe – if I can switch hats for a minute – the truth will set you free. I read that in a book somewhere,” he says, smiling.

“The man who built his house on the solid rock when the winds came and storm came, it did not blow away. But the man who built his house on sand, when the wind and rain came, it washed away.”

The years to come might better determine how the story of Holland’s four years in office will be told ultimately. Do police-community relations continue to improve after he’s gone? Does he make a political comeback or exit the stage? Is he seen as the mayor who took one for the team by tackling important tough issues head on? The one who pushed too far by angering public safety unions? Will future mayors have the courage or interest to disagree with powerful public safety unions or similar important groups? Or is the story really that after more than two decades of mayors who pushed reforms and economic growth in the western areas of the county, voters were simply ready for a different face or focus?

How Holland is remembered, or not remembered, carries implications well beyond the boundaries of Wyandotte County. For elected officials seeking to find the right balance between pushing too hard or not pushing far enough, the story of Holland’s efforts to tackle the issue of police-community relations – and the challenges and complications he faced in doing so – might be worth considering as they undertake initaitives of their own.

A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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