Politics & Government

Longwell, Whipple clash over violent crime rate at Wichita commission’s mayoral debate

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and state Rep. Brandon Whipple clashed over how far the city has come in addressing crime during a candidate debate Thursday.

Longwell cited statistics that show violent crime is down by double digits in several major categories year to date, while Whipple focused on numbers that put Wichita’s violent crime rate at more than double the national average. Wichita’s violent crime rate was three times the state average last year and more than twice the national average in 2017, The Eagle has reported.

The two candidates for mayor spoke before the Wichita Metro Crime Commission.

Year to date, shootings are down 23% compared to last year, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay told reporters earlier this week. The department has previously said murders, reported rapes and robberies are also down by as much as a third year to date.

Asked what each would do to address the violence, Longwell pointed to the city’s recent acceptance into a three-year federal program, the National Public Safety Partnership, that will provide specialized training to the police department and a new ballistics lab at Wichita State University that will help it “address the gun violence in a more expedient manner.”

“Next year, after we approve 26 more in the budget, we’ll have 90 more law enforcement officers on the street than we had four years ago,” Longwell added.

“What we’re doing in this community to combat crime is working. We’re going to continue to move the needle.”

Whipple, meanwhile, said the city should be doing better when it comes to addressing violent crime. He said the standard for Wichita’s crime rate “shouldn’t be how we’re doing over the last few months” — it should be how Wichita compares to cities that it competes with for jobs.

He called for a “back to basics” approach that would add more police officers to the department and cut emergency response times in half.

“If we compare Wichita — specifically our police force — to other cities, we see that we are lacking in the amount of officers today on the streets,” said Whipple, who is endorsed by the local police union.

A recent grant application from the department said it was “severely underfunded and understaffed” with about 650 officers for a city size that at least one study suggests should employ about 980, The Eagle has reported.

Last year, the department had 439 patrol officers, according to the department’s latest annual report.

“What we have to do is invest in our community safety if we’re to allow Wichita to grow,” Whipple said.

The debate, held over lunchtime at the Scotch and Sirloin restaurant, was a Wichita Crime Commission members-only event. It lasted for about an hour and included opening and closing remarks from both candidates.

Audience questions focused largely on crime, policing and what the city should do to attract and keep young workers.

Whipple answered a question about whether Wichita is a sanctuary city by saying he’s focused on local issues.

“When we look at enforcing federal legislation, we also have to be prioritizing the basics such as making sure that the police are able to address the crimes here in Wichita,” he said, adding: “We haven’t done that.”

Longwell said Wichita is not a sanctuary city “and we don’t intend to be.”

“We need to make sure that we are keeping people safe and that means upholding all of the laws on the books, and that means local laws, state laws and federal laws handed down to us,” he said.

In response to a question about how to attract and keep young people in Wichita, Whipple said the city needs to offer “the same career opportunities as other places” including job training and collaborations with educational institutions.

Longwell said the city is already giving high school students a chance “to see what’s right here in their own backyard” with a soft-skills training program that matches them with summer internships. Students, he said, don’t need a four-year college degree to be successful; technical school is also a lucrative option.

The candidates dodged directly answering a question about whether they favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, with Longwell saying the legislature hasn’t taken up the issue yet and Whipple saying it’s a mayor’s job to present the legislative agenda of their constituents.

Both candidates said they support law enforcement enforcing immigration detainers and addressing the underlying causes of Wichita’s violent crime rate. Those include mental illness and drug abuse, The Eagle has previously reported.

Asked whether they would raise local sales and property taxes, both Whipple and Longwell said they would not.

Asked how they planned to pay for increasing police resources and plans to retain workers, Whipple suggested he would find money in the existing budget by prioritizing needs.

Longwell said: “The simple answer is we don’t need to raise your taxes. ... We just need more taxpayers.”

The candidates debate again Friday at the Wichita Pachyderm Club’s lunchtime meeting in downtown Wichita.

The election is Nov. 5.

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.