When there is an emergency in Kansas City’s Oak Park — an area long plagued by gun violence — some residents choose not to contact the police, according to neighborhood association president Pat Clarke.
Instead, he said, they call him.
“A lot of people feel safer or feel comforted by calling me,” he said.
Community members are frustrated by the repeated shootings in the area and the lack of officers readily available to respond, Clarke said. They also believe more needs to be done to restore relations between citizens and law enforcement.
In the months following the deadly May 21 shooting at an East Side nightclub that killed three and injured two more, Clarke said there was a clear need for more officers in Oak Park.
Police reports obtained by The Star revealed that Klymax Lounge owner Mario Williams called police for help 20 minutes before the shooting broke out.
The owner of the nightclub told The Star he believed the shooting could have been prevented if police had acted more quickly. Reportedly, a dispatcher said there was a “blackout,” meaning no police cars were available to respond until an emergency had already occurred.
“I told the police the guys were here with guns and our guard wouldn’t be able to stop them… I said we needed help,” Williams said in an earlier interview.
Clarke explained that other Oak Park residents shared Williams’ concerns about police response times.
“If you look at this neighborhood, this community, on the weekend. I don’t think they have enough cops available. Someone needs to put up the biggest request for help sign you can put out,” he said.
Kansas City officials have grappled with the challenges of recruiting and retaining officers at Board of Police Commissioners meetings. Third District Councilman Melissa Robinson believes the problem stems in part from police needing to cover Kansas City’s vast landmass.
“I don’t think we’ve ever reached the level of officers that can keep up with the demand,” Robinson said.
Personnel data for the department’s East Patrol Bureau, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Oak Park neighborhood, revealed a dip in the number of officers employed. While there were 154 positions and 151 officers on January 1, 2021, the number of police officers serving the division fell to 128 in 2023, leaving 22 slots open.
Clarke said he does not blame the police and recognizes the challenge of covering such a large area. But, he also said, it is unacceptable for residents in his neighborhood to have to wait 15 or 20 minutes for a police response, which some say is unacceptable.
“You have three cops, four cops, five cops already at the crime scene and they’re on the other side of town, and then the one that should be available to us is at another crime scene… There are we on now”, he said.
“I will say that some communities are more responsive than what I’m doing here.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and other community activists were not immediately available to respond to requests for comment.
It’s called building a relationship
Oak Park Neighborhood Association community developer President Pat Clarke and Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte met Wednesday to discuss ways to deter gun violence.
Just a few hours later, they were alerted to another murder in their neighborhood.
“This is poor conflict resolution skills,” Forte said of the driving force behind the escalating violence.
He explained that young residents need to find alternatives to violence when dealing with distress. He also said the relationship between law enforcement and residents needs to change.
“It’s called relationship building,” Clarke said.
The pair said they were not ready to disclose the programs or solutions they had met to discuss, but all agreed that the burden of restoring trust rested on both the officer and individual members of the community is located.
According to an earlier report from the Star, residents experiencing record levels of gun violence said police were there to control them — not protect them.
Missouri has led the nation for most of the past decade in the rate at which black people are killed in shootings. In Kansas City, 75% of homicide victims are black, even though less than 30% of residents are black, the report said.
The report also showed that the fewer people saw gun violence in their neighborhood, the more they trusted the police. And the more people had to call the police, the less they trusted them.
Both black and white Kansas residents reported knowing they had different experiences, the report said.
Research cited in the report by the Giffords Law Center, a nonprofit devoted to gun violence and police safety, examined how disparate treatment by police may increase gun violence in black communities.
“Inequalities are all interconnected and unfortunately gun violence is both one of the most important indicators of inequality and one of the most deadly,” said Ari Freilich, policy director at the Giffords Center in an earlier statement.
When residents contacted police or police arrived after another murder, many found their work unsatisfactory: citing slow response times, poorly conducted investigations and lack of communication with families, according to the report.
A late June report from the Star determined that community-building and trust-building are critical steps to remedying the low homicide rate handled by the Kansas City Police Department. Police have only acquitted a third of the more than 100 murders in the metropolitan area reported this year.
In response to the report, Mayor Quinton Lucas cited community trust as a key element in solving law enforcement problems.
“Part of that relates to building more trust in the community. I think this police chief is working hard on that. I think we will continue to try to find ways to improve that long term,” he said.
‘They just didn’t show up on time’
Kansas City police told the Star they responded to a gun call at 1:25 a.m. on May 21, arriving at the Klymax Lounge at 4242 Indiana Avenue a minute later.
But club owner Mario Williams disagreed.
Williams said people fleeing the club were “ready to riot” because of the delayed response.
“If the people who want to cause trouble see the police…they run,” Williams said.
“These guys were able to be outside my establishment for at least 20 minutes with guns hanging out of their pockets,” he said.
Williams and police records showed that the club owner called officers at least five times that night.
The first was a 1:04 a.m. call in which Williams reportedly hung up after eight seconds, though he told The Star he was disconnected after briefly relaying the situation. The second call, also at 1:04 a.m., was answered by a dispatcher within three seconds and led to a conversation that lasted nearly two minutes.
The call picked up by the dispatcher was assigned priority number four, meaning there was no immediate danger to human life, Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a spokesman for the department. Examples of other priority four calls include burglaries, snipers, no-injury accidents, and other suspicious activity.
He explained that call priority is assigned by the caller, with priority one calls indicating an extreme, known or potential threat to human life, such as a rape, shooting or armed robbery.
Calls are given priority two if there is danger or injury, such as bomb threats or other disturbances. Priority three calls, such as welfare checks, are not life threatening. Priority five calls, such as noise disturbance and non-domestic violence without injuries, indicate that a delayed response does not detract from the quality of service provided to the person in need.
Williams made two more calls — at 1:26 a.m. and 1:27 a.m., respectively — that were “abandoned.”
The first call was disconnected after 29 seconds and the second after waiting 53 seconds to speak to a dispatcher. Williams claimed that each of the calls was broken.
“There were bodies all around me,” he said of that time.
According to Captain Corey Carlisle, a spokesman for the Kansas City Police Department, about 11 other calls from the lounge were waiting for a dispatcher during the same period. These calls, he said, prompted the first firing call sent.
Williams’ last call at 1:29 a.m. was picked up by a dispatcher after waiting in a queue for more than four minutes.
At that point, police were already on the scene, Carlisle said.
“People say this shooting happened at our club and nothing could have been done to stop it. But we called the police to say they were going to shoot. They just didn’t show up in time,” Williams said.