By Paul Thompson
March 8, 2017
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – KCPD Central Patrol Division’s Commander, Major Rick Smith, estimates that 5-10% of police interactions ultimately result in an arrest. So he posited a simple question: how can KCPD better serve the vast majority of citizens who proceed along with their daily lives?
“The other 90% to 95% have the potential to get their issues resolved,” said Smith. “That’s what police officers don’t have the time to do.”
In addition to asking the question, Smith has resolved to answer it. Late in 2016 he secured funding for a new pilot program at CPD that would bring, for the first time in his recollection, a social worker into a KCPD Division to work right alongside police officers. While there is a social services component to the City’s KC No Violence Alliance (NoVA), this was different. It required a social worker to operate hand in hand – literally sharing an office – with Central Patrol Division officers. Smith believed that the dichotomy could work, and he had just the person in mind to make it happen.
Smith first came into contact with Gina English while both were working at KC NoVA. English served as a social worker; Smith (at the time) ran the program. Then and now, Smith was impressed with how English was able to ingratiate herself with complete strangers. After Smith acquired funding for the pilot program, English was a natural fit.
“It’s just amazing to see how people connect with her, when they put up such a wall with the uniforms,” said Smith. “I think the average person knows that Gina doesn’t act like a cop. She doesn’t put the people on edge to begin with.”
“There’s a reason why Gina is in that position, and not just anybody,” he added.
The ambitious pilot program began on December 1, 2016, when English arrived at CPD as the first Social Services Coordinator in the history of KCPD. Initially, even Smith wasn’t entirely sure what her day-to-day would entail. One notable task was to help combat the issue of youths causing problems at Kansas City’s entertainment districts, primarily at The Plaza.
So a couple of weekends back, during a particularly warm stretch, English trekked down to The Plaza to investigate the problem for herself. In lieu of simply observing the scene, English approached groups to administer a brief survey. In total, she convinced 33 youths to talk to a social worker embedded with the KCPD. Out of the 33 surveyed, English found that 24 knew about the summer curfew; 14 said they went to schools outside of the Kansas City Public Schools system; and 28 were dropped off at The Plaza that night, while three drove and two walked. Just seven of the 33 surveyed agreed that they had viable youth programming they could have been doing in their own community. In one evening, English was able to acquire significant raw data from a wide age range.
“The ages were all over the place; as young as 13, and as old as 19,” English said.
While the entertainment district issue has been a focus, and will continue to be as spring and summer rapidly approach, it has ended up representing just the tip of the iceberg for English’s experimental new role at CPD.
There was the man suffering from dementia who, despite receiving $2,000 per month in benefits, was facing eviction from his landlord for failure to pay his rent. Seeing that the man was being taken advantage of by a caretaker, English helped get him into an assisted living situation. There’s also the case of a struggling young mother whose son had been expelled from school for behavioral issues. There had been immense trauma in the family, and the mother sought help dealing with a son who was lashing out. English helped get him back in school, and while she was at it, worked to find job leads for the mother.
“It’s like you have to be two steps ahead of everything, and at the same time, come at it with an open mind,” says English of her role at CPD.
A particularly tough situation recently encountered by English revolved around a local family that had found themselves the victims of gun violence. After the second round of gunfire targeted their home, this time with a handful of kids inside, the mother called English. Backed by several police cars, she went to the home to personally gather the family. She took them to a local pizza place for dinner, and one of the officers paid for the meal out of his own pocket. Meanwhile, English worked with a local agency to put the family up in a hotel room for a couple of nights while she found new living arrangements. Today, the family has been removed from immediate danger.
“They are safe in a new home outside of the Central Patrol Division,” said English, who emphasized the important role of CPD officers in the case. “Ultimately, it’s about supporting these guys, because they’re stretched to the max.”
One of English’s office-mates, Officer Trevor Singer of Crime-Free Multihousing, shed some additional light on the story of the victimized family. Singer noted that the family’s residence had been a target of his unit for some time before English’s arrival, and that there had been more than enough cause to displace them from their home. With English on board, though, KCPD’s result was improved dramatically. The family was relocated to a safer place, and crucially, Singer and his unit received some additional peace of mind.
“We had enough a while back to really close down the house and just displace them,” said Singer. “Instead of them being displaced by closing down a house for codes and utilities issues, she actually helped them get somewhere else. It was probably more productive than we would have been able to do just on our own.”
Last week, English allowed Northeast News to tag along as she made either her sixth or seventh visit to residents of The Ridge, a notorious homeless camp located near the FBI’s Kansas City office in the city’s Westside neighborhood. She was first assigned the task of assisting the homeless residents of the camp in early February, and she’s been a consistent presence there ever since. The City’s Parks and Recreation department, in concert with KCPD, began cleaning out the camp on Saturday, March 4, and English worked diligently ahead of time to make sure that all of the residents understood what that meant. She posted fliers around the camp and set up an impromptu pop-up information booth to help connect the homeless residents to vital services throughout the city.
“It was really about valuing their life and respecting their wishes,” said English. “We really are trying to see things from their point of view.”
For English, though, that wasn’t enough – it’s never enough – so she returned last week with a half-dozen plastic tubs in tow, offering them to the residents so that they could pack up their belongings before the clear-out. She was joined by police officers Richard Salzman and Chato Villalobos, who operate out of the Westside Community Action Network (CAN) Center at 2136 Jefferson St. The CAN Center has been operating in Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood since 1994, partnering with neighborhood leaders to improve the livability of the area ever since. Because the neighborhood resides within the Central Patrol Division, it falls under English’s purview. Remarkably, the rapport between Salzman, Villalobos and English is palpable, just as with her office-mates at CPD headquarters.
Villalobos, a longtime resident of the Westside neighborhood, acknowledged that English has enhanced his ability to do police work, helping to make connections even he hasn’t been able to.
“Her coming to us was timely. Her nickname is ‘The Whisperer,'” said Villalobos. “We have this person who is able to connect with people and get them what they need.”
“She also helps humanize us, man,” Villalobos added with a smile. “She gives us street cred.”
Undeniably, English’s presence has helped smooth the clear-out process at The Ridge. She estimated that before the March 4 clean-out, roughly 10% of the camp’s residents had accepted vital social services. English helped one individual, originally from North Carolina, make contact with his estranged family and acquire bus fare back home.
Salzman, who along with Villalobos has worked closely with English over the past month, said that the outreach effort ahead of the clean-out helped engender a healthy respect between the homeless residents of The Ridge and the police officers who had been tasked with displacing them from their makeshift homes. During a February 28 community meeting held to discuss the homeless issue, Salzman described the surprising greetings he received from The Ridge residents who attended.
“We approached it in such a way that these people were coming in and giving me hugs and high-fives,” said Salzman a week later, the shock still prevalent in his voice.
English’s efforts have begun drawing the attention of City leaders, including 4th District Councilwoman Jolie Justus. Justus came into contact with her as both women grappled with how to best handle the developing situation at The Ridge.
“The clean-out actually is the catalyst for having them accept the help,” said Justus of the homeless residents of the camp. “I cannot commend KCPD and Parks and Rec more for how they’ve handled this. To me, it was our city staff and police department at its finest.”
Justus came away particularly impressed by English, and perhaps more importantly, determined to find funding for her position during the upcoming budget process. As it stands, English’s position is only funded through September of 2017.
“One of the recommendations we were going to make is, frankly, the need to have people like Gina,” said Justus. “It was just very clear that we did not have people doing that.”
Just three months into her role as Central Patrol Division’s Social Services Coordinator, the department’s lone embedded social worker has more than proven her utility. Smith, for one, would like to see the pilot program continued into perpetuity.
“I can give you example after example after example,” Smith said. “I just think it’s worth its weight in gold.”