Crime & Courts

Old Town shooting a test of new police chief’s emphasis on data, community policing

Wichita police respond to a disturbance outside the Indigo Lounge in Old Town shortly before closing time Sunday morning. (March 6, 2016)
Wichita police respond to a disturbance outside the Indigo Lounge in Old Town shortly before closing time Sunday morning. (March 6, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the last name of Mike Tusken, Duluth’s deputy police chief.

When new Wichita police Chief Gordon Ramsay applied for the job, he promised to help the city’s officers use data better and to help expand the department’s community policing. He’s already started asking for data on houses that have had three or more police calls and is instituting weekly “Compstat” meetings, in which he looks at data with top staff members.

This emphasis on analyzing data about where and when crime tends to happen has been shown to lower crime, according to Michael Birzer, a professor of criminology at Wichita State University. Crime went down in several categories, most prominently robberies, after Ramsay implemented more-modern forms of data analysis in his previous job in Duluth, Minn.

But Ramsay acknowledged in news reports when he was applying for the Wichita job that, as an outsider coming in, some people would be nervous about changes he might bring.

So when he took part in a news conference Saturday to discuss Friday’s shooting in Old Town – one of his first high-profile acts as police chief – people were paying attention to what it might mean about the kind of chief he would be.

His response exemplified one of his main approaches to fighting crime: Look at the data to determine hotspots or potential hotspots, and deploy officers to prevent crimes. When he first came to Wichita, Ramsay said, he was told that bars’ closing time in Old Town was a “powder keg.”

Another key lever would be involving the community, he has said repeatedly. At the news conference Saturday, he again emphasized that crimes are rarely solved through police tactics alone but are largely solved with the help of witnesses.

Community policing isn’t a new strategy for Old Town, Ramsay said: Officers have routinely been deployed there when bars closed. He cited a statistic that crime has fallen by more than 270 percent since 2012.

But Ramsay made clear that community policing involves not just seeking community input but also expecting community support. A fight that erupted inside a club Friday was never reported to the police, he said, so even though officers were nearby, they weren’t able to respond as effectively as they might have.

So while asking for the support of the clubs, he also demanded that they respond. “If they choose not to cooperate, we will use every available resource to bring them into compliance, as we are not going to tolerate this going on in Old Town,” Ramsay said. “I hope this is loud and clear.”

Challenges

But the incident also showed some of the challenges Ramsay will face as he adapts to his new job while pushing the department to use more data and expand community involvement.

Ramsay has spent most of his career in Duluth, where he grew up, serving as its police chief for nearly a decade. Duluth is less than a quarter the size of Wichita, more than 90 percent white and has significantly lower crime rates. During Ramsay’s tenure as police chief, the most homicides in one year there was three, although frequently there were one or none. There were no shootings with four or more victims during Ramsay’s entire tenure in Duluth, according to Mike Tusken, Duluth’s deputy police chief.

By the time Ramsay became police chief in Duluth, he had built many relationships over the years and knew the lay of the land.

“When I was a beat cop and worked the bars, I knew that at least half the bar had my back,” Ramsay said. “And you know, when I got surrounded or whatever, I had half the bar come to my aid.”

During the Saturday news conference, Ramsay said he didn’t know whether the Pandora and Indigo clubs had been helpful partners with the police in the past but that in his previous experience, some bar owners he worked with in Duluth had not thought it was their duty to help the police.

If a bar owner ever showed reticence about working with the police to help fight crime, it was typical of Ramsay or one of his officers to meet with the bar owners and talk about how businesses get better by reducing violence, according to Tusken, who served under Ramsay for nine years. “It’s a paradigm shift,” Tusken said. “As stewards of our community, it’s important we all are doing our part that everyone is safe.”

But Duluth doesn’t have any bars or clubs that serve a predominantly black or Hispanic clientele, according to Tusken.

Ramsay was known in Duluth for reaching out to minority groups, according to articles in the local paper there, and has been reaching out to minority groups in Wichita, including activists who had previously sometimes been ignored, according to Birzer, the WSU professor who was on the committee that recommended hiring Ramsay.

In Duluth, Ramsay implemented body cameras, formed a citizen review board in 2012 and even took some heat within his department for firing an officer for using excessive force on an American Indian man, all signs that he would work actively with minority communities in Wichita.

When he singled out Pandora and Indigo Lounge in Wichita, Ramsay said, he didn’t realize those clubs served a largely minority clientele. So he was surprised by a complaint from Indigo’s owners, who said his response unfairly targeted the only two minority clubs in Old Town while ignoring other Old Town drinking spots.

Moving forward, looking back

Ramsay is planning to meet with the owners of Pandora and Indigo Lounge on Wednesday and Thursday to talk about how they and the police can work together.

“I don’t want people to feel they are being picked on. I don’t want people to feel that we’re randomly picking out places,” Ramsay said. “So one of my goals in meeting with these bar owners is to go over the statistics and talk about things they can do so we don’t have this violence.”

But even if he did not have all the data or didn’t yet understand all the relationships involved, the crime warranted a swift response, he said.

“The trigger for all this is we had four people get shot; that’s a serious, serious issue,” Ramsay said. “For us to not take some kind of strong action to make sure this didn’t happen again, we’d be remiss in our duties, no matter where the action occurred.”

The need for a swift response was especially important in Old Town, according to Ramsay, because of its role in Wichita’s economy. Ramsay showed up in Old Town the night after the shooting.

“That’s a great economic revitalization story down there, and we want to make sure it’s safe for people to go,” Ramsay said. “If people are scared to go down there, that’s going to hurt business.”

Ramsay was able to make tough, unpopular decisions in Duluth but still maintain the support of his officers and the community, according to Tusken, because he spent significant time building relationships.

“He is aware that in police work, you have got to have a bank of relationship capital,” Tusken said. “And at times, you are going to take deposits on that.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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