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The productive zone: Wichita police chief finds early success with community, department

By Joe Stumpe

 

For most of the past half-century, Kansas’ largest police department was led by one of its own. Since 1968, there was just one six-year period, from 1989 to 1995, when a Wichita police chief who hadn’t come up through the department’s ranks held that job.

And that experiment ended with the departed chief writing a scathing novel about the agency and city.

Gordon Ramsay’s hiring as chief in late 2015 – he started in January 2016 – broke the pattern in more ways than one. Ramsay arrived from Duluth, Minnesota, as a straight talking apostle of community policing, technology, diversity and what might be called nontraditional views on certain legal issues.

Nearly two years into the job, one could argue that Ramsay appears to have enjoyed an extended honeymoon (albeit one that may be coming to an end). A Wichita Eagle newspaper editorial criticized Ramsay in October for a lack of transparency on two issues, which drew a rebuttal from his boss, City Manager Robert Layton, who expressed full support for the chief.

Prior to the fall of 2017, though, there had been few instances of anything but praise for Ramsay. And it isn’t simply a matter of luck. He built a lot of that goodwill on his own by being effective at keeping the various stakeholders he works with or answers to – including city officials, the public and the officers he oversees – in the productive zone of work.

In leadership, the productive zone is the sweet spot where the heat is high enough that change can happen, but things are not so hot that people get pushed past their limits of tolerance. From his position of authority, Ramsay has at times raised and lowered the heat in hopes of strengthening the bonds of trust between the community and his force.

THE BIGGEST
QUESTION FACING
RAMSAY IS:
How long can he keep himself and others there?

A five-day period in summer 2016 illustrates Ramsay’s desire to steer developments in a direction where progress can be made.

On a sweltering Tuesday night in July, with tension over police shootings of African American men spiking across the nation, several hundred protesters blocked traffic in north central Wichita. Ramsay later disclosed that about 50 officers had been ready to deploy in case of trouble, but they mostly stayed out of sight and the event remained peaceful.

Organizers appreciated the hands-off approach, and when Ramsay suggested holding a community barbecue instead of another protest the next Sunday – “I had a lot of people thinking I was crazy,” the chief says – those organizers agreed. The barbecue itself, while largely recreational, included a question-and-answer session where some residents voiced their frustrations directly to Ramsay.

“Those people who were angry at police, they still had a platform,” says Lavonta Williams, Wichita’s only African-American City Council member. “Those who were OK (with police) had a platform as well.”

The barbecue, which drew about 2,000 people, garnered Wichita positive national attention and Ramsay an invitation to the White House. (He couldn’t go because of a prior commitment.)

Ramsay stepped into a city where members of minority communities were increasingly expressing their distrust of the police department. One factor was the number of police shootings of suspects in recent years, disproportionately affecting African-Americans, based on their share of the city’s population, and reverberating with similar shootings across the country. Another was the revelation that more than two dozen officers – including Ramsay’s predecessor as chief – were on a list of people with potential credibility issues should they be called to testify in criminal cases, based on past allegations of misconduct or dishonesty. Still another was the disclosure that the department had kept a so-called “secret” file on some cases, the contents of which have yet to be revealed.

From the department’s point of view, Ramsay says he found that some officers “had withdrawn a little bit from the community.”

The Wichita Police Department employs about 850 people. Running any agency that complex involves numerous technical hurdles related to personnel, budgets, programs and the like. Ramsay’s bigger adaptive challenge was and is to bring those two aforementioned constituencies – the community and police – together over time.

As that happens, there are inevitably going to be conflicts, misunderstandings and differences of opinion. Yet without them, progress may be impossible. The challenge is to bring those conflicts to the surface and deal with them at a rate that people can accept. The temptation will be to keep the heat too low for anything to change; the risks are that too much can happen too fast and some groups won’t accept change.

It’s a balancing act that Ramsay doesn’t intend to shy away from.

“I don’t avoid conflicts,” Ramsay says. “I seek to resolve them.”

Perfecting the art of being chief

Across the country, as police forces face greater scrutiny in the era of Black Lives Matter, more communities are turning the reins over to reform-minded chiefs who often aim to bridge the divide between the police and community. But preserving law and order and keeping the respect of the force while fostering change isn’t an easy feat.

Despite being held in high-esteem by the nation’s police elite, Baltimore’s reform-minded chief ended up out of a job after he failed to adequately earn the trust of the cops under his command, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Charlotte’s police chief, an African-American, found himself in a firestorm over being too protective of officers when a black man was killed by police in that North Carolina community. Navigating competing loyalties can be difficult, and there are numerous examples of chiefs who suffered because they failed to keep things in the productive zone.

There’s little doubt that Ramsay’s police loyalties run very deep. “I love cops,” he says. “I love being a cop.” A native of Duluth, Ramsay was first exposed to law enforcement through a neighbor who was a police officer. He started working as a police officer part-time at the age of 20 in a nearby small town, then moved to his hometown department and earned a degree in criminology and sociology.

As a neighborhood patrolman, Ramsay says he found a career that was more like a mission.

“One officer – the impact they can have on a neighborhood is tremendous,” he says.

But Ramsay’s loyalties to policing aren’t blind. As he tried to put into practice some of the concepts that he’d absorbed in the classroom, Ramsay found the way blocked by bureaucracy and the old ways of doing things.

“I thought, ‘If I get promoted, I can get some resources and cut through the red tape,’” he says. Eventually armed with a master’s degree in management, Ramsay worked his way up to investigator, sergeant, lieutenant and area commander before being promoted to chief at the age of 34. Ramsay says he “probably didn’t have enough time in the cooker” when he took over the top job. To compensate, he started a daily habit: setting aside about 20 to 30 minutes to read about what’s happening – good and bad – in other law enforcement agencies. When he left for Wichita a decade later, the reviews from his former employers were uniformly positive.

Ramsay has been married for 20 years, is the father of two elementary-school-age children and says that, other than running, “My hobbies have become my job.”

And he’s not shy about naming his personal goal.

“I want to perfect the art of being the chief.”

Engagement with the public is a big part of Ramsay’s approach to his job. But he’s not just known for chatting and shaking hands. He’s also taken some clear steps to address concerns about the police department.

One of the first people Ramsay heard from in Wichita was the Rev. Roosevelt DeShazer. He left the new chief a telephone message a day or two after he started work: Would Ramsay meet with members of the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, made up of religious leaders from across the city? Later that same day, Ramsay texted that he’d be glad to. By Ramsay’s count, he has since appeared in about 60 places of worship in Wichita.

“He’s approachable,” DeShazer, pastor of the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, says of Ramsay. “He doesn’t sugarcoat or try to blow smoke up our behinds. He comes straight. From what I understand, he’s the same way with his officers.”

Also at DeShazer’s church that day was Lavonta Williams. She mentioned a concept being utilized in another city – a “God squad” of ministers to advise the police chief. Ramsay immediately agreed. A group of eight ministers continues to meet with him on a regular basis, voicing community concerns and receiving information from Ramsay about what’s happening within the department. Ramsay says the group has played an important role, appearing at the scene of a gang-related shooting this summer, for instance, to help relieve tension.

Ramsay’s visits to places of worship embody a key component of his approach to law enforcement, which is getting officers out into the community in ways that have nothing to do, at least directly, with traditional police work.

“To me, he’s a leader who leads by example,” says Brandon Johnson, a community organizer running for the City Council seat Williams must vacate because of term limits. “Kind of like what he’s talking about not harassing people about taillights and stuff like that, is what he’s doing as chief.”

Indeed, Ramsay has not just advised officers that they may issue warnings instead of tickets to motorists for minor traffic infractions, such as a busted taillight; he’s stopped drivers and done it himself. It’s part of an effort with some national traction to help low-income people avoid getting caught up in an escalating cycle of unpaid fines, multiple court appearances and even jail time.

“A hundred and fifty dollars to a single mom raising kids is a lot,” Ramsay says. “We need to consider the impact on citizens.”

Similarly, Ramsay last year implemented a policy that rather than arrest individuals found with a small amount of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, officers can write a notice to appear in municipal court, although he’s quick to add that “in no way do I support marijuana.” The City Council recently passed an ordinance that codified that policy.

Ramsay regularly goes out on police calls himself, talking to residents, taking photographs and posting comments on social media about what he’s found. Williams says Ramsay was knocking on doors and talking to neighbors after one shooting when he was able to come to the aid of a resident who’d fallen and couldn’t get up.

“That part of the community fell in love with him right away,” she says.

Spreading decisions around

As his interactions with Williams and DeShazer show, Ramsay is not afraid to make quick decisions. Deputy Police Chief Jose Salcido, whom Ramsay named last year as the first Hispanic ever to occupy that post, says he sees it all the time. “I’ve seen decisions made in minutes that would have taken a year, a year and a half” before, Salcido says.

Ramsay says one of the first things he found in Wichita is that officers were too busy responding to emergency calls to engage in the community interaction that he believes is essential for creating a safer city. With buy-in from the City Council and city manager, a staffing study was completed this spring that recommends the addition of officers, and the first phase was approved in August.

He also determined that too many decisions were being pushed too far up the chain of command. He says captains in the department had forwarded a big stack of training requests for officers to his desk.

“I said, ‘I’m not signing off on this. Your sergeant should be doing that.’”

At the level above sergeants – the captains in the department’s four patrol districts – Ramsay said, “I want them to look at their job like they’re the chief of their area.”

Ramsay wants officers at all levels to make decisions without looking over their shoulders, while following departmental policy and lines of authority. While officers have always exercised some discretion in their duties, Ramsay’s remarks on the topic should provide them with more autonomy. Asked how officers have responded, Ramsay says, “The majority of them are excited about it.” He acknowledges that some have “legitimate concerns … but I’m encouraging it.”

In addition to decision-making, Ramsay encourages his officers’ efforts to innovate, whether they’re related to traditional crime-fighting or the building of relationships with the community.

For instance, the department received good publicity when SWAT team members dressed as superheroes rappelled down the outside of Wesley Children’s Hospital, to the delight of youngsters inside. Ramsay says the idea came from a subordinate.

Officers have made a video spoofing the supposed addiction of police to doughnuts while promoting a fundraiser for an injured officer. On the day he sat down for an interview for this article, other officers held a news conference inviting the public to name its new mascot. While these efforts may seem manufactured or trivial to some, Ramsay says good works by police too often go ignored.

The chief has also made it a priority to meet as many of the department’s employees as possible, using in-service training days as an opportunity. He tries to share policy moves before they become public, because “cops like to hear things are happening before they hear it on the news.”

Policing is difficult. Ramsay says no officer can be expected to make the right decision in every situation. And it’s dangerous. Earlier this year, veteran Wichita officer Brian Arterburn suffered severe injuries when he was struck by a car during a police chase. Ramsay frequently posts comments about Arterburn, who is slowly recovering, on his Facebook page.

“My heart goes out to him,” Ramsay says.

Life as an outsider

Ramsay says one of the biggest lessons he’s learned since arriving has been how an outsider can be misunderstood.

“Growing up in Minnesota, they knew my character. One thing coming here, I think I underestimated how people can misread you or misread your comments.”

But Salcido, the deputy chief, says Ramsay has won over employees with his obvious passion
for the job and the well-being of departmental employees. When it comes to disciplining officers, Salcido notes, Ramsay’s goal is to “make them better and whole again” rather than punish. As for the morale of rank-and-file officers, Salcido says, “In my 20 years here, I’ve never seen the relationship between the (police) union and chief as good as it’s been since he took over.”

Community policing is not Ramsay’s only priority. Ramsay wants the department to more closely mirror the makeup of the city as whole. For instance, he notes that female officers comprise only 13 percent of the force. Last year, Ramsay launched an effort by the department to recruit people who might want to work in law enforcement as a “second career,” saying life experience can be valuable to an officer. He has discussed relaxing hiring standards, saying someone arrested for smoking pot as a teen shouldn’t be disqualified from being a police officer.

In promoting officers, Ramsay says he is “really trying to promote people with different backgrounds, different views, different ways to police. Not the traditional what you see in management, those that follow directions. I’ve promoted people that a lot of people never saw being promoted.”

He’s appointed liaisons to the city’s Hispanic and LGBTQ communities. In a bid to make the department’s work more transparent, Ramsay has endorsed the wearing of body cameras by all patrol officers – a goal realized last summer. The department spent a large portion of its training budget on what’s known as “scenario-based training,” borrowing a vacant school to set up a dozen simulations in which officers had to decide whether to use their weapons. “We had officers with 20-plus years (experience) say, ‘I wish I would have had this when I was a young cop,’” Salcido says.

On a day in late June, Wichita media outlets carried several stories about departmental activities that could be considered innovative, such as officers helping a homeless veteran find a home and forming a partnership with Starbucks to provide safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community and victims of hate crimes. Yet another article detailed how police are mailing letters to 74 parents and guardians of children who are on the department’s documented gang member database. That move came in response to community questions about the composition of the database and shows another instance of Ramsay tackling issues head-on.

Loving the role

One of the truths about navigating the productive zone in leadership is that it’s hard to get everybody all-in at the same time.

While the reaction to last summer’s barbecue was overwhelmingly positive, a chapter of the national Black Lives Matter organization based in Washington, D.C., tweeted that the get together was “not in keeping with (its) principles.” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the national Black Lives Matter organization, told Wichita media that activities such as cookouts and panels that don’t hold police accountable for actions don’t bring about change.

Ramsay says all the attention on the barbecue – good and bad – misses the bigger point.

“We committed to quite a few things with that,” he says. “And a lot of people have forgotten about that. They’re stuck on that: ‘Well, that was nothing. That was just to placate us.’ No, there were some really good things to come out of that.”

Specifically, Ramsay promised to support a citizens’ review board to examine complaints against police officers, to implement cultural sensitivity training for department members and to advocate for legislation requiring independent prosecutors in shootings by police. The review board is expected to come up for approval by the City Council soon (Ramsay supported the creation of a similar board while in Duluth that faced opposition from the police union there). Ramsay says all officers will receive training in “implicit bias,” which he described as “bias you may not even be aware of.”

No legislation to require an independent prosecutor in police shootings was approved in Topeka during the most recent session. Ramsay, however, says he has accomplished something similar through an agreement with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office. Going forward, the agencies will investigate each other when one of their members is accused of a crime.

Williams, the City Council member, says Ramsay has followed through “very, very well” on promises to the community and made other improvements as well, such as expanding the use of surveillance cameras in the city’s Old Town entertainment district.

Residents of her district view police “in a different light” than before, she says. “We have a good relationship.”

DeShazer agrees, saying he knows the community officer and captain assigned to his neighborhood well. When residents asked for additional patrols around an elementary school in the neighborhood, police promptly complied. After officers showed up at a funeral to make an arrest, Ramsay appeared at the church the next Sunday, speaking to the congregation and apologizing to the family of the deceased for the disruption, DeShazer says.

At this point, it’s been hard to find anyone with many cross words or criticism for Ramsay, on or off the record. But whether such good feelings are sustainable remains to be seen.

Policing, after all, is both reactive and relationship- driven. The practices, policies and culture of the police force – not to mention the dynamics in the broader community – are decades in the making. What will happen if and when there are events or challenges, such as the criticism that emerged in October, that raise the heat higher on Ramsay, the police department and the community? How will everyone respond then?

There’s work to be done, and Ramsay relishes the task.

“I LOVE THE ROLE I PLAY IN SOCIETY.
I believe I was put on Earth to do this job.”

 

 

 

 

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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