The two top contenders to be Wichita’s next police chief faced questions from city residents on Tuesday night and offered a distinct look at their leadership styles.
The two and a half hour forum offered each candidate an hour to answer questions that probed his attitude toward immigration, handling corruption, racism, dealing with mental health issues, handling the homeless population and community policing.
Both Mario R. Knapp, 48, who worked his way up from a street cop for the Miami Dade Police Department to its fifth-highest rank, Major, and Joseph P. Sullivan, who climbed to the second highest rank in the Philadelphia Police Department over 38 years, agreed on some issues.
Both were quick to say that immigration enforcement is not a city police department job. They agreed that immigrant victims of crime should feel free to call 911 without fear of being asked about their status.
Both agreed that officers should face consequences for racist, homophobic, sexist or anti-semetic comments or behavior, even on social media platforms.
They also agreed that crisis intervention training for every police officer should be a priority and that officers confronting a person undergoing a mental health crisis should know how to de-escalate the situation and avoid the use of force.
Tracey C. Mason Sr. a training coach at CHD Boxing Club appeared in a “Justice for Cedric” T-shirt, advocating for justice in the death of 17-year-old C.J. Lofton a year ago. “You are coming in under fire,” he warned the candidates.
When questioned on racism, the candidates offered differing stories of personal experience. Knapp talked about his personal experience as the son of a Cuban immigrant mother with a German surname.
“I was assigned to guard the scene of a crashed airplane when I was a very young officer and the officer I was relieving asked me what I wanted to do and I said SWAT team,” he said. “He looked at my name badge and it said Knapp and that apparently made him feel comfortable with saying ‘I hope you make it and you get rid of all those Cuban (slur).’ I had to then figure out how to let him know I was Cuban.”
Sullivan talked about the discovery that members of the Philadelphia Police Department had been involved in posting “absolutely shocking” items on Facebook, a reminder that racist text messages and social media posts have been an issue in Wichita.
“We weren’t even technologically prepared to handle that,” he said. “We fired officers, we put some on maximum suspension. I’d do the same thing tomorrow. You have to acknowledge wrong. Evil is evil and I will not tolerate it.”
When it came down to it, many community members made their decision about their preferred candidate on their comfort level with the candidates, and informally, that appeared to be Sullivan.
Juanita Ridge, founder of the Millenium Moms Empowerment Network, who was most concerned about privacy issues for family members making phone calls to inmates at the Sedgwick County jail, said she favors Sullivan because his body language and general demeanor made him seem friendly and approachable. She felt like he was someone she could talk to comfortably and someone who would listen to her concerns.
She said she felt like Knapp’s answers to questions about his Twitter “likes” for posts by extreme right wing figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebart, were “more PR scripted” and “less genuine.”
Knapp said he is only an occasional and unsophisticated user of social media and that the “likes” weren’t endorsements of those individuals.
Sheila Officer, Chair of the Wichita Racial Profiling Advisory Board, said she favored Sullivan because she thought his body language indicated he was more comfortable fielding questions. She pointed out that he was relaxed and even laid down the microphone and stretched between questions.