Karl Oakman is back home where he belongs. At least that’s the reading from his growing group of fans. 

Oakman has been the Kansas City Kansas Police Chief for just over a year and a half, but he appears settled in at home.  That may be because while Oakman served more than 30 years on the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, his roots are in KCK. 

His roots 

Oakman was born and raised in KCK.  He grew up in the Argentine area and attended KCK Public Schools.  His father died when he was six and his mother died when he was 11, which left Oakman to be raised by an older sister, who was just a teenager.  

After their mother’s death, they moved to an apartment in Gateway, a low-income housing project just north of down KCK, where they could be closer to an aunt.  In 2022, the sibling group would more than likely would have been forced into foster care, but instead, they found a way to get by, often barely.  

Oakman could have easily fallen through the cracks, but his mother instilled a strong value system and a message of hope.  

“She told me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do if you remember these two things, work hard and never let anyone take your hope away,” Oakman recalls.  

It was in KCK that he developed his desire to become a police officer.  When he was a young child, there was a police officer in his neighborhood, Officer Bill, who would take the time to talk to the children.  It was this relationship with Officer Bill, who was White, that made him see police as good people, who helped others.  

“I don’t know if we knew what the word trust meant,” says Oakman, “but we felt comfortable with him.”  

It’s that kind of relationship Oakman has strived to have with people in the neighborhoods he served. It’s the importance of that kind of relationship that he’s working to instill in the 300-plus officers in the KCK Police Department.  

“It’s so important when people trust the police, they can help the police,” says Oakman, but he recognizes that building trusting relationships is a two-way street.   “Both sides, police and the community, have to really have an open mind so that trust can build.”

KCKPD Has Changed 

Oakman was well aware of KCKPD’s tainted reputation before taking the position of chief.  Since he’s arrived, the department’s soiled reputation has grown nationally, with organizations like Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, picking up the “Justice for Wyandotte” mantle.  Most of the stain can be tied to one former officer, retired Captain Roger Golubski, but it’s hard for the department to shake the perception that the problem couldn’t possibly have been limited to just one-bad cop.  

This fall, the U.S. Department of Justice filed numerous charges against Golubski including trafficking women, kidnapping and “color of law” violations — using the power of his badge – to make women have sex with him.  

There have been calls for the Department of Justice to step in and investigate the Department and it’s in the midst of all of this that Oakman is working his plan to make a good police department great. 

When Oakman signed on as Chief in June 2021, the first thing he did was to make his expectations clear and to set high standards.  

 “I will not tolerate any kind of corruption and I will not tolerate any kind of abuse of citizens,” he told the officers. “When I got here, I made sure officers understood that this is going to be a positive environment for everyone: male, female, Black, White, Hispanic, doesn’t matter.”

When everyone else around you is being positive it’s hard to be negative, said Oakman.  So, those who didn’t want to get on board left and those who stayed understood. 

What he said he found was a department that wanted change.  

“They wanted leadership,” he says.  “They had a lot of creative ideas, and they were feeling like their voices weren’t being heard.”  

Where he started, he says, is where all chiefs should start, is internally.  

“You have chiefs of police all around the country and they want to push these great community programs.  But guess what they don’t do?  Deal with what’s going on internally.  So, you put disgruntled people in these great programs.  So how successful do you think the programs going to be?”

Community Engagement 

After he addressed the inside, Oakman began an aggressive campaign to connect the Department with the citizens.       

His message to his officers is, “we’re not just here to protect our community, we’re here to serve our community.  Like I tell people, this isn’t your grandmother’s KCK Police Department.”  

Last spring, the Department sponsored a community march down from 5th and Washington to New Zion Church where they had a picnic and “fellowshipped” together.  The event attracted 300 people from all walks of life.  

They continued with a picnic in Argentine and one in the Turner community.  They followed that with a football camp and a Youth Police Academy.  The football camp called “Tackling Conflict Together,” was a traditional football camp but also focused on character building, anger management and conflict resolution. All of the participants were fed and received a goodie bag and a new pair of football cleats, all for free.  

Oakman says everything the Department does in the community will always be free to ensure there are no barriers that keep people from participating.  

Results and Improvements.  

While KCMO struggles with a swelling homicide rate, homicides are down in KCK.  

In 2020, the year before Oakman joined the Department, there were 58 homicides.  In 2021 — Oakman arrived that June —  the city had 50 homicides.  In 2022, his first full-year at the Department, there had only been 33 homicides by mid-November when we set down with the Chief.  

Where there has been an increase, is in Domestic Violence and in Fentanyl deaths.  Twelve of the homicides have been the result of domestic violence and reflecting a national trend, the City has seen almost as many fentanyl overdoses as they’ve seen homicides.  

To help address the Fentanyl problem, all KCK officers are provided Narcan, which can be used to revive people from a fentanyl overdose. 

Unlike the crack epidemic, instead of concentrating on the users, the Department is focusing its enforcement efforts on the dealers.  

To help address Domestic Violence, the department has implemented an industry-wide scoring system to evaluate the potential threat for further violence are harm on each call.  Some items, like guns in the home or death, may call for immediate intervention, where it might take the combination of several smaller warning singles to escalate intervention.   

“It tells you this may have just been an argument, pushing and shoving, but that it’s going to get more violent and possibly deadly so that we can intervene before it gets deadly,” said Oakman.   

To address concerns about Driving Will Black and disproportionate contact with people of color, anytime an officer “activates their lights,” or pulls an individual over, they either have to issue a ticket or a warning.  Those stops are reviewed for negative trends as are body camera footage.  

The department has hired a full-time person to conduct random reviews of body cam footage.  They have found some irregularities.  So far, it’s mostly been what Oakman calls “training issues.”  

The Department Mix 

The department is budgeted for 369 officers and they’re currently down around 35 to 40.  However, the Department was recently recognized on a national level for its speed in processing applications.  The standard around the county for processing an applicant: which includes a background check, psychological exam, physical, references and criminal history check is 6 months.  KCPD has their processing down to 30 days.  

In addition, the department is doing a great job with hiring and maintaining a diverse police force, while their numbers are good, they don’t mimic the population of the KCK, which is a majority, minority community.  Their staff is 15% African American, 15% Hispanic and 3% Asian.  Which Oakman says is high for policing, even when you come from a majority, minority city.  

Compare that to KCMO which has a total of 12-13% combined for their Black and Hispanic officers.  The Department is also doing well with female representation.  They’re currently at 14%, but recently signed a national commitment to “30 by 30,” a goal to have women as 30% of their police force by 2030. 

In addition, Oakman says the Department has adopted the national “Eight-Can’t-Wait,” model of policing.  The model is being promoted to departments as a way to reduce police killings:

The eight procedures included in Eights Can’t Wait all of which KCK have implemented as part of their policing process include:  

  • Bank chokeholds and strangle holds 
  • Require de-escalation,
  • Require warning before deadly force
  • Require exhausting all alternatives before deadly force 
  • Officers have a duty to intervene 
  • Bans shootings at moving vehicles, 
  • Requires use of force continuum, and 
  • Requires comprehensive reporting.  
  • Not Your Grandmother’s KCKPD 

Oakman has significantly upgraded the department’s systems and program, adopted some of the most progressive policing practices and goals, weeded out officers who wouldn’t buy into his “positive for all” department policy, aggressively reached out to the community personally and continues to build on a department mantra to not only “protect” but “serve.” 

“So looking at this Department I believe I can add value to it as well as to the community to make this a police department that everyone in this community can be proud of and deserve,” Oakman says.  

He’s well on his way to making a good Department great.  

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Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

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