There was that time the middle of the squad room floor caved in.
They ringed it off with yellow crime-scene tape.
And then, because there was nowhere else to have a meeting, “We all sat in chairs around the edges of the room, around this big, gaping hole in the floor that was police-taped off,” recalled Officer Jax Rutledge. “We all just had to laugh at that point.”
So it goes at the Wichita Police Department’s East Substation: Make it work, make a joke, move on.
The east station, on Edgemoor just north of Kellogg, was built in 1989, the first of four substations serving the city’s burgeoning suburban population.
All the city’s substations are showing their age, but the east station is generally acknowledged by city and police officials as the one most in need of replacement.
The City Council took some small steps in that direction two weeks ago. The city already has land for a new station, but money to build it remains an open question.
When the east station hit the drawing board in 1987, it was heralded as a giant leap forward for a city that had outgrown its centralized, City Hall-based Police Department. It was part of a sweeping reorganization designed to modernize the department and get the officers closer to the neighborhoods they served.
“We’ve got to stop thinking cow-town mentality,” then-Police Chief Richard LaMunyon said in a Wichita Eagle story at the time.
Now, officials and officers agree that the east station is outdated, undersized, overcrowded and just plain worn out.
Adequate for about 30 to 40 officers, it is now the home base for 100 to 130 on any given day, police officials say.
In recent years, it’s had termite issues, leaky-roof issues, mold issues, air-conditioning issues, heating issues, plumbing issues and electrical issues.
The tour starts in the parking lot. It’s too small to hold all the police vehicles and the officers’ personal cars. So every day, some officers have to park on Lexington Street south of the station.
“It’s not secure,” said the station’s commander, Capt. Kevin Mears. “We’ve had police vehicles vandalized, had citizens’ and our vehicles vandalized. There’s not enough lighting out there.”
The entrance to the station is right by the gas pumps used to fill up the patrol cars, giving the place an ambiance that is more old-time service station than police station.
At 4,500 square feet, the building itself is so small that Patrol East has to house its community policing officers and the Special Community Action Team – officers who work drug and gang crimes – off site in rented office space.
At the station, “I do not have the office space or the facilities (for those teams) to be able to have a computer, an office area, a place to talk with citizens or work with confidential informants or on complaints,” Mears said. “To supervise, it’s not the greatest situation.”
Just inside the officers’ entrance to the station, there’s a dinky room where more than 100 officers file their daily reports. It has three computer work stations.
In that room, a sizable crack zig-zags across the block wall. “They put caulking over it and painted it,” Mears said.
A few steps to the south, the public entrance opens straight in to a reception desk, with no security barrier to the restricted parts of the station or bullet-proof glass to protect the desk officer.
Just to the left is the station’s only holding cell. There’s nobody in it.
There never is during the day shift because to get to it, officers would have to march handcuffed arrestees within inches of people in the four chairs that make up the public waiting area.
And when a suspect is in the cell, “sometimes they’re banging and yelling and screaming” – not the kind of thing you want to expose the public to – said Lt. Patrick Leon, one of the 16 lieutenants and sergeants who share an office with three chairs and two computers.
The station doesn’t have any interview rooms for suspects, victims or witnesses. So instead of going into the lockup, suspects have to be held in one of the offices, with an officer assigned to watch them, until they can be transported to City Hall or jail, Mears said.
The men’s locker room has less than half as many lockers as there are men who need them.
Not that having one is any great shakes, because they’re smaller than school lockers – a throwback to a time when police carried a lot less equipment than they do today.
“I have one. I can’t really use it,” said Officer Dane Myers. “My gear is bigger than the size of the locker itself.”
There are three showers, two urinals and one toilet to serve about 100 officers and supervisors.
“There’s a line to the bathroom some days like you’re at a concert at the arena,” said Police Chief Gordon Ramsay. “That’s not conducive to a healthy work atmosphere.”
The only additional facility is the single-toilet unisex public restroom, which is so deep inside the station that members of the public who need to go have to be escorted by an officer.
Throughout the station, it’s hard to find a horizontal surface that isn’t covered with gear, boxes of paper, or items such as donated child-safety seats that officers give to families who can’t afford them.
Like every other room in the station, the locker room does double duty as a storage area.
“I’ve got shotguns and cleaning supplies and weapons cabinets, all the stuff for SCAT entry, riot gear,” Mears said. “I have to put it here, which is kind of in the way, but I have no place else to put it and it has to be secured.”
It’s actually not as bad as it used to be, he said.
Before the city built a storage building just north of the station a few years ago, bicycle patrol officers had to store their bikes in the shower, Mears said.
And Myers said he remembers times when electrical problems kept the locker room in darkness and “you had to go to the bathroom with a flashlight.”
Then there’s the women’s locker room, serving about 15 female officers. It has one toilet in a narrow, undersized stall with a door that doesn’t fit right.
“If we’re really lucky, we can get the stall to close every now and then,” said Rutledge.
There’s a shower, but the pipes are so old and rusty that the water comes out brown, she said. “There’s no way I’d put my body in that shower,” she said, grimacing.
It’s significant because police work is often a dirty business. For example, an officer helping a person who has been injured in a car accident can get blood, vomit, oil or gasoline on his or her uniform.
Without adequate lockers, showers and changing facilities, “If something happens to one of their uniforms, we have to have them go home and change,” Mears said.
Chainsaws outside the window
The center of activity at the station is the squad room. After the floor collapse, the city put in a new hardwood floor a couple years ago, which everyone agrees is nice.
The square room, about 30 feet by 30 feet, serves as the primary meeting room, storage room and lunch room, with a soda machine and a snack machine along the south wall.
Cabinets around the squad room are filled with radios and batteries, physical evidence gathered at crime scenes, body cameras, Tasers, and other gear and supplies.
The old clock in the squad room stopped running recently and the new one has a wall adapter that’s too big to fit into the recessed outlet on the wall.
The temporary workaround for that was to run a power strip to the outlet, plug the clock into the power strip and prop the clock on a high shelf, where it blocks some of the pictures of officers killed in the line of duty.
To save money on land back in 1989, the city paired the east police station with an adjacent fire station.
And every day, the firefighters have to test their equipment on a concrete slab behind the police station.
“They have to operate their equipment and everything and they’ve got to start their chainsaws and all this, that’s right outside my office,” Mears said. “If I’m trying to talk on the phone or something – they just have to do it, it’s a safety check – well they’re right here. When their trucks come in and they’re working on them and they got the diesel motors running, I can barely hear in my office.”
Even Mears’ office is used as storage space, with boxes of electronic equipment stacked in the corner.
“I’ve got new equipment that I’m exchanging out with the officers, because there’s no place to store it out of the way,” Mears said
Ramsay, who recently finished his first year as Wichita’s police chief, said “substation” is a misnomer because the remote sites have evolved into full-fledged police stations over the years.
“I was really surprised when I came down here at the number of people working out of those stations,” he said. “Actually, I was astonished.”
While he praises his officers for doing a good job under adverse conditions, “It was clear to me that one of the issues I had to work on was getting modern and updated work facilities.”
At Ramsay’s urging, the City Council allocated $160,000 on Jan. 17 to jump-start the process.
About $35,000 of that will go to create a secure public entry at the existing east station, and $125,000 will be spent on analyzing police facility needs citywide.
“They (council members) weren’t aware of how dire the need was,” Ramsay said. “We don’t want to be Chicken Little and say the sky’s falling, but a 10-year plan is not going to be sufficient. These stations need to be a priority in the next few years.”
He said the city has been talking about replacing the east station for about 10 years and has acquired land near Central and Greenwich.
Right now, he said, there’s $2.5 million in the budget for east station facilities. He said that’s not nearly enough to build a new station, although he won’t know the cost until the needs assessment is finished.
Five years ago, he developed a new headquarters as police chief of Duluth, Minn.
Duluth borrowed $17 million to pay for its share of a public safety complex that also included the county sheriff’s office and a 911 communications center.
Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner, whose district includes the east station, said he’ll pay close attention to Ramsay’s recommendations on how much should be spent on a new police station.
But he said he doubts it will have to cost more than the $9.5 million approved last year for a joint city-county law enforcement training center at Wichita State University.
A new east station will certainly need to have interview rooms and enough offices, lockers, changing space and bathrooms for the number of people working there, Ramsay said.
But his overall vision is broader than just improving the working conditions for police employees.
The new station will also need technology upgrades to handle recent innovations like body camera equipment and be flexible enough to adapt to expanding police technology, such as monitoring systems for street cameras in high-crime areas, he said.
He also wants to create a space that’s more comfortable for crime victims, attracts more volunteers to help out the department and serves as a place for city meetings and small community gatherings.
“This next generation of stations is going to be here a long time,” he said. “We get one bite at the apple and we want to do it right.”