One Kansas City Police Officer's Take On Police-Community Relations In KC

Jul 24, 2016

Amidst rising tensions between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation, Black Lives Matter supporters joined forces with the Wichita Police for a cookout last weekend. What was originally planned as a protest turned into a picnic, where over 1,000 community members came together for food and dance.

"It wasn't about officers dancing, it wasn't about the food, it was about the issues we're trying to address within this community," Wichita community organizer AJ Bohannon said. "It was really genuinely only the first step in a long journey ahead of us."

AJ Bohannon, community organizer and activist in Wichita, hugs a fellow community member at the First Steps Cookout at McAdams Park last weekend.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

Here in Kansas City, Chato Villalobos, a Latino officer with the KCPD, hopes that Kansas City can start, and continue to have that same conversation. 

"Not just talk, but action plans," Villalobos told host Matthew Long-Middleton on KCUR's Central Standard. "We have a long ways to go."

Villalobos reflected on a storied history of racial injustice in Kansas City, like title deeds and racially restrictive covenants, and how these created economic disparities that over time created disenfranchised areas where unemployment, poor education, poverty and hunger lead to violence, crime and more.

"We're still paying for all of that," he says.

In moving forward, he encourages community members in positions of privilege to acknowledge what disadvantaged communities have gone through systemically and be open to conversation about it.

For police officers in particular, this means getting to know the communities that they serve; it means community policing, he says.

"I'm not just an occupying force, I want to be a partner with you," Villalobos said.

He says current initiatives, like the Police Athletic League (PAL) and the long-standing D.A.R.E. program, help to build relationships with the community.

"Police departments need to do a better job. We need to own a lot of what's going on," Villalobos said, "but we can't do it alone."

Villalobos, for his part, has been working on behalf of the KCPD with fellow officers on community policing for years. In 2010, he was honored by the Kansas City Council for his work through the Westside CAN (Community Action Network) Center.

This work is personal for Villalobos, a person of color himself. Growing up in the inner city, he learned from his elders and from experience not to trust the police.

"I was petrified of police officers," he says.

He recalls one night in his childhood when he and his friends were playing baseball in the park. A cop car pulled up, and the kids stopped in their tracks.

"We didn't know whether to run or not," he says. "It was learned behavior."

The officer got out of his car, pulled out his Leatherman and climbed a pole to the electricity box, so he could turn the lights on over the baseball field. It's a story that still brings tears to his eyes today.

"If [officers] decide to take that initiative to metaphorically pull out their Leatherman ... for people in these disenfranchised communities," he says, "there would be more faith, [and] whenever it comes time to do the ugly part of the job — take somebody to jail, write a ticket, or use lethal force — those conversations [would be] easier to have."

There is still a deep-seated distrust, and a long history to uproot. But, Villalobos says, that history must be acknowledged, and people in positions of power and privilege must be okay being held accountable for it.

"Instead of approaching like a warrior, we need to approach like a guardian," he says. "I need to go in there with a heart ready to be part of the healing."

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter @adtudhope.