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Will New Leadership Solve Kansas Highway Patrol’s Problems?

Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Col. Erik Smith to head the state law enforcement department, which has been a consistent source of troubles for years, including allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Col. Erik Smith left a high-ranking role in federal law enforcement to lead the Kansas Highway Patrol, an agency that has been plagued by low morale and controversy for nearly a decade.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Smith, who previously led the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s inspections division, to lead the state law enforcement agency that has been a consistent source of strife for the Democratic governor since she took office in 2019.

“What I’m focused on is just making peace with the past and trying to take the agency into the future,” Smith said in an interview with The Star four weeks after he took over as the patrol’s acting superintendent as he awaits confirmation by the Kansas Senate.

That past dates back to when Republican Gov. Sam Brownback appointed Col. Mark Bruce as superintendent to resolve morale issues that festered under his predecessor, Col. Ernest Garcia.

Bruce gained a reputation for high recruiting classes and Kelly chose to keep him on when she took office in 2019. But months later, Kelly’s administration forced Bruce out amid questions of his handling of a domestic violence case involving another high-ranking officer. Bruce has a pending lawsuit against Kelly related to his ouster.

But Kelly’s pick to replace Bruce, Col. Herman Jones, was soon mired in controversy as he faced multiple lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Earlier this year, lawmakers, with support from the Kansas Troopers Association, threatened to reorganize the force, taking it away from Kelly and placing it in the hands of Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican.

Smith, who began his career in the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, has promised a reset — and so far has garnered bipartisan support.

“I think what the Highway Patrol needs is stability here and now, and I think if that sets up the next administration to be in a position to go in a different direction it doesn’t matter what that direction is,” said Smith, who spent two decades in federal law enforcement before returning to Kansas. “I want to be able to prepare the Highway Patrol for that day.”

The Kansas Two-Step

The same month that Smith took over the patrol on an acting basis, a federal judge handed down a scathing ruling, which faulted Jones and the patrol, for unconstitutionally violating drivers’ rights through the Kansas two-step, a practice in which troopers would walk away from a car before returning, sparking a “voluntary” interaction that allowed time for drug sniffing dogs or other backup to arrive.

Smith said he could not comment much on the lawsuit, citing that case was still ongoing. The federal case remains open as the court seeks to replace Jones with Smith as the defendant in the case. Kobach told reporters last week his office was still determining whether or not to appeal the order.

He did affirm the importance of following the constitution and said the patrol would abide by any court order.

“Our policies have evolved even since when those traffic stops occurred and we’ll continue to take a look at best practices,” he said.

The ruling made national news, harming the patrol’s reputation in an era already marked by distrust in police, especially among communities of color.

“There’s some work to be done in repairing relationships among members of the public,” Sen. Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat, said.

But Smith rejected the idea that the Highway Patrol’s reputation in the community needed to be rehabilitated.

“There’s a loud voice that carries a sometimes negative law enforcement sentiment but I don’t think that that is widespread,” Smith said. “I do think that the Highway Patrol has a fantastic reputation overall of professionalism, of service, of courtesy and of professionalism.”

Broad Support for Smith

As a political appointee, Smith may only have three years at the helm of an agency before a new governor comes in with a new superintendent.

But, after years of political squabbling over the future of the force, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are optimistic about the force’s future under Smith’s leadership.

“Bringing in Col. Smith with his vast amount of experience, being outside of the Kansas Highway Patrol, I think bodes really well,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican. . He added that the troopers he’d spoken to had good first impressions.

“There seems to be a lot of optimism that he is going to be the person that comes in and really does walk that walk.”

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and vice-chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Smith’s impressive experience will help in that process when he comes in front of the Legislature next year with his budget proposal.

“I think that people do trust him, that legislators will trust him,” Claeys said. “That makes the job so much easier both for him and for us. It was very difficult handing money over to the previous leadership knowing that that money may not be used for raises, for incentives to become a Highway Patrolman or woman but instead might be used for large settlements.”

And the Kansas State Troopers Association, which has for years expressed extreme displeasure with Jones, is showing early support for the new regime.

“There’s nothing off the table for him and he’s willing to listen,” said Sean McCauley, a Kansas City attorney who represents the Troopers Association. “That is the breath of fresh air that the organization really needs.”

McCauley said troopers had seen early signs that Smith’s tenure brings promise. He’d already visited with the troopers association, McCauley said, and shown a willingness to revisit long standing policies like the patrol’s strict prohibition on visible tattoos and listen to troopers’ concerns about scheduling.

“We’re going to stop thinking that because we’ve done it forever it has to be the only way,” he said.

These efforts to modernize the patrol, state Rep. John Carmichael said, would be key to the agency’s future success in recruiting and in citizen relations.

“The patrol has a long tradition of holding itself, in its own mind at least, above other law enforcement in Kansas because of their stringent requirements at their academy and straight-backed Trooper standing with a large hat on the highway in full uniform at 105 degree heat,” Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said.

“In today’s world I think that probably the life expectancy of paramilitary police law enforcement organizations is limited.”

Restoring Morale

Although a federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of Jones in a sexual harassment suit brought by current and former female employees, McCauley said the consistent negative headlines about the force had left a stain on the morale.

It was worsened, he said, by an “us versus them” mentality and a sense among rank-and-file officers that executive leadership in the Highway Patrol was not listening to them.

“It’s put everyone at odds when they should be going in the same direction,” McCauley said.

Meanwhile, the agency has struggled to keep a full staff as troopers leave quicker than the force can hire and train new ones.

In June, only 10 troopers graduated from the patrol’s academy. For comparison, 38 troopers graduated in December of 2017, according to Highway Patrol reports. The patrol holds training classes twice a year, graduating new recruits once every six months.

Smith suggested public statements and reports of increasingly frustrated rank and file officers at the patrol were overblown. He’s spent the past three weeks traveling the state and said he found people eager and ready to move forward alongside him bringing the force into the 21st century.

“Are there differences of opinion on a variety of topics? There are. One of the things I’ve talked to people within the agency about very very emphatically is really what good morale is and good morale isn’t,” Smith said.

“One of the notions I reject is that bad morale exists because one segment of the population didn’t get something that they wanted. What I believe bad morale is, is the inability to deliver on an expectation. Whether the rank and file has that expectation of me as a leader or I have that expectation of the rank and file.”

Clear and open lines of communication, Smith said, will be the key to bringing a culture of energy and passion to the agency that helps recruitment and morale.

“I would like to see the organization as a whole be energized and excited about getting up and coming to work each day, I would like to see the organization be willing to sacrifice for a sense of service,” he said.

Though he said he would evaluate pay and benefits for officers, Smith viewed that as just one piece of the puzzle for fixing recruitment. Police agencies across Kansas and the nation have struggled to recruit for several years amid a workforce shortage and challenges wrought by the pandemic and nationwide protests over police bias and brutality.

Lawmakers said they’d be watching morale as well as recruitment and retention efforts closely as Smith takes over.

“Sometimes change is the best solution and this is an opportunity for Col. Smith to take a look at the processes overall without biases of the past two or three colonels,” Owens, the Republican lawmaker, said.

In the past, Owens said, a spot on the Highway Patrol was the pinnacle of an officer’s career. Now, he said, local agencies appear to be having an easier time recruiting than the state.

Corson said he’d like Smith to bring the Legislature a plan for recruitment and retention that includes a reevaluation of pay and benefits for troopers.

Ultimately, Smith said he sees opportunities as he looks ahead.

“Those challenges are opportunities for the Highway Patrol to move to the next level,” Smith said, referencing challenges in staffing and a need to update the patrol’s use of technology.

“It’s our intention to continue to pursue the best applicants that are out there that represent the values that the agency stands for and that represent the diversity in the communities we serve.”

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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