Window on the West
by Mary Rupert
What can Kansas City, Kan., do to become a more equitable community?
That was the question I posed this week to Alvin Sykes, a Kansas City, Kan., human rights activist. The topic of equitableness and diversity has been discussed at the national level since recent events involving the shooting of a black teenager by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
“We must have more dialogue between people, because as we do, particularly all races and genders, we will learn more about each other and more about our capacity to come together and be a better city,” Sykes said. “Then we have to develop more of a belief in principles.”
That will make Kansas City, Kan., more of a community of character, he said.
Sykes was one of a group of about 20 community leaders who met with Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Ellen Hanson recently to enhance communications. He also was part of another meeting of community members with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
At the meetings, various topics were discussed, such as the details of using deadly force in arrests, and the racial makeup of the law enforcement force.
Currently, efforts are underway for a task force to address issues such as more diversity in the police and fire departments. Mayor Mark Holland is scheduled to speak about the topic, with new plans to be presented, at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, at the fifth floor meeting room at City Hall, 701 N. 7th St. The city has been meeting with the Justice Department and local community members for several months.
“The mayor needs to be really commended for reaching out to the Justice Department,” Sykes said. “That’s a good step about showing he had some genuine sensitivity to the issue.”
Sykes said he believed that more interaction and outreach between public safety officers and the community would be beneficial. More interaction would lead to a greater sense of humaneness and more sensitivity on both sides, he said.
“If we develop a justice-seeking atmosphere in the community, those goals will be perceived as a matter of course,” he said.
There are some factors that make it more difficult to be hired or an unattractive job for minorities, he believes, such as the rules governing who may be hired, including rules written into contracts; the relatively low pay for officers; and the image of the officers in the community.
Last Nov. 21, it was obvious that blacks were not well-represented in the class of firefighter recruits who graduated at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. The group included mostly white males, and some of them graduated from schools outside of Wyandotte County. Not long after that, the topic of including more minorities, and more residents, in the ranks of the police and firefighters was discussed by commissioners at the UG’s budget meetings.
Currently, Kansas City, Kan., has a 26.8 percent black population, and a 27.8 percent Hispanic population, according to UG figures derived from the census. The police department is 11.6 percent black and 10.7 percent Hispanic, according to UG figures.
Sykes noted that was very much different from Ferguson, where 57 percent of the population was black and there were three black officers out of 53.
“We have a lot more to work with,” Sykes said. “We’re not as bad as some other places; we do have the tools to make it better. We have a good police department; our challenge is to make it a great one, so we need to get to the best practice levels of doing things.”
As an example of an issue where there needs to be better community communication and more dialogue, Sykes cited his effort to get the UG Commission to fill a vacant seat, the 1st District at large position, after a tie vote left it vacant in 2013. A resident has taken the UG to court in an effort to fill the vacant seat. The UG’s charter did not spell out what steps could be taken in the event of a tie.
“The majority of the black residents in the city live in the 1st District at large, the least amount live in the 2nd District at large,” Sykes said. “So there’s an underlying feeling in the black community that if it wasn’t for the fact that most of the blacks live in the 1st District at large, they would have filled the seat a long time ago.”
A lot of the office holders who are white did not see the issue in these terms, he added.
“We need to learn more about what other people think and what makes them feel better about this community and this world, just as we look at what it takes for us to do so,” Sykes said. “We need to address some of those concerns and have sensitivity to other communities.”
Kansas City, Kan., he said, is big enough to be able to have the ability to make some big changes within the boundaries of the community, but it’s small enough to be able to see the results if they occur, or to see that they haven’t been met. The goals are not out of reach, he said.
The city has the capacity and resources to make changes, it just has to be able to have the courage and willingness, with the sensitivity, to do so, he said.
To reach Mary Rupert, editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org.