After serving 30 years at the Kansas City Police Department, Vince Ortega has been selected as Director of Jackson County COMBAT, an organization designated to rooting out crime in Kansas City. Ortega says there were several factors that drew him to this position, but ultimately he is looking forward to where he can take the organization in the future.
He is working closely with the Mattie Rhodes Center to identify issues of crime in the Northeast and how to provide programs and services to residents.
Growing up on the westside, Ortega said he spent a lot of time at the fire station with his father, a Kansas City Firefighter, but that life didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he set his sights on the Police Department and eventually rose to Deputy Chief of Police, retiring in 2006.
He said after his retirement, he had a chance to look back and reflect and do a self-assessment on what he wanted from his career in the future.
“What really sparked my interest with [COMBAT] and what I missed from my time in the Police Department, that was working in the community. That’s what fulfilled me: boots on the ground with the community, problem-solving and working hand-in-hand with the community to solve problems,” said Ortega.
COMBAT (Community Backed Anti-Drug Tax)is a 0.25-percent community-backed anti-drug tax that was first approved by Kansas City voters in 1989 for seven years. The tax was renewed in 1996, 2003, and again in 2009.
While other states fund anti-drug programs with sales taxes or fines, Jackson County was the first jurisdiction to enact a strategic, countywide anti-drug sales tax dedicated to a broad-based attack on drug abuse.
COMBAT is built on three pillars: Prevention, Treatment and Criminal Justice. Prevention focuses on youth in the community, trying to reach them before they ever experiment with drugs. Many programs are geared toward children and adolescents with a positive, anti-drug message.
“Over 50 programs are focused on youth and family to keep them engaged in something positive and proactive, which could be sports, mentoring, tutoring, or life skills-based programs,” said Ortega. “Some of these youth in high crime areas do not know how to interact and diffuse a situation with verbal skills versus physical skills.”
Treatment services help drug abusers confront their addiction, “get clean” and stay clean. Ortega says he realized the majority of the clients that go through treatment are on probation or parole, and most of them have mental health issues, whether innate mental health issues or trauma-induced.
“A lot of them turn to substance abuse, which is termed self medicating,” said Ortega. “If a lot of them are going through the criminal justice system and have mental health issues, they don’t need to be in jail, they need services, and so being in this position, I have an opportunity to work with and educate law enforcement about these issues.”
The funds from the tax contribute 20 to 22 million dollars annually, which are distributed among various agencies. The Jackson County Drug Commission is charged with the responsibility of establishing the priorities of COMBAT and making recommendations to the Jackson County Legislature for the funding of various initiatives that support this mission.
The distribution for the funds can be seen in the diagram below.
Gina English, Social Services Coordinator with the Kansas City Police Department, said she believes Ortega’s experience and previous work with the organization makes him a great leader for COMBAT.
“He understands the tools available to law enforcement and what they are up against,” said English. “He also understands the social service piece of it. Prevention is about support and resources. Being able to have both of those perspectives with his experience, I think it will have a beneficial impact on COMBAT as a whole.”
She said his vision, coupled with tangible action steps, is what will create the much-needed change in the communities.
“He has a vision in pulling people and resources together, and tapping into creating opportunity for collective impact. That’s where the movement is going to happen, that is where we are going to see change is when we are all working in unison, complimenting the services that we each provide.”
Ortega says his current goal is to not be so program-focused, but instead, meet with the communities to determine what services are needed. He also plans to find a hub in Midtown for community members to meet.
To learn more about COMBAT, please visit jacksoncountycombat.com.