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Finalists for Wichita Police chief talk about their vision for the department

Mario Knapp and Joseph Sullivan will participate in a public forum Tuesday night at Botanica.

Two finalists have been named in Wichita’s search for a new police chief.

Mario Knapp previously worked for the Miami-Dade Police Department and currently oversees training at a public safety technology company.

Another candidate, Joseph Sullivan, previously worked for the Philadelphia Police Department and also now works for a public safety technology company.

The city will hold a public forum Tuesday evening with the two candidates at Botanica.

Ahead of that forum, both candidates spoke with KMUW about their ideas on policing.

Interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in policing?

Joe Sullivan: I am a lifelong resident of Philadelphia. I became a police officer at 19 years old. I went to Penn State University and St. Joseph's University; I got my master’s at St. Joseph. Graduated from the FBI National Academy. Started in a very busy district in North Philadelphia and worked my way up through ranks and a variety of spectral units until I reached the rank of Deputy Commissioner for operations, which includes a bulk of the police department. I supervised approximately 4,560 [people], both uniform and professional staff and that includes all of the patrol districts and divisions. But it also includes a lot of really important special units like community relations, hate crimes, the LGBTQ liaison posts, and the police explorers and PAL, two very important programs for the police to reach out to local youth to provide them with safe spaces and positive programs to facilitate their development.

Mario Knapp: I am a 27-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department. I went through every single civil service rank within the department. Attained the appointed position of major and commanded probably what I think is probably one of the most complex units or bureaus within the Miami-Dade Police Department, which is the special patrol bureau. And so to give you a little context … most districts or bureaus have one Captain reporting to the major. I had three captains reporting to me during my time there. ... Under my command was the SWAT team, the bomb squad, the Marine patrol unit, the aviation unit, the divers unit, the canine unit, the motors unit, and then a unit called Special Events section, which basically handles all large scale events in Miami-Dade County. So for example, like the Super Bowl or the Formula One ... we're the ones that coordinate all that and set up those large events. And then there's another section in there called the police operation section, which has their ... uniform patrol capacity and Detective Bureau within that general investigations unit, but also handles all security within the transit system for Miami-Dade. But before that, I had a number of other responsibilities. And one of them was that I served as the departmental use of force expert for Dade County.

It sounds like you've kind of had a rather extensive career. Why Wichita?

Sullivan: If you look at my resume, I would almost say that I've done everything in policing but police chief, and I'm coming from a city like Philadelphia, so I'm really not interested in a small police department; I would get bored very quickly. I enjoy challenges; I’m very high energy and very passionate about policing … community and bringing all that together to accomplish a mutual goal. And Wichita … the more I read about it, the more excited I get. It's a great city, and it's really an emerging city. It's a large city. It's a large police department. It's a good police department, but that said, it has its share of challenges lately. And I certainly enjoy challenges.

And Philadelphia, and I say this with love in my heart for my state, is a difficult place to police. I'm used to handling large problems and used to handling a diverse community to work through those problems.

[During the interview process] in my mind said to myself, ‘Yeah, I definitely want it, I definitely want to do this.’ I was asked some really tough questions, but they were important questions, and they were fair questions, and the follow-ups were good and the level of discourse and, and… I felt that it seemed like a place where there can still be discourse, where everything's on the table to be discussed, and we can work our way through a problem.

Knapp: So I left for the private industry for about a year and in that year, I traveled a lot and I was meeting a lot with not just community groups, but police chiefs and different trainers from all across the country. And I was really speaking to them about use of force issues. … the George Floyd incident kind of flipped our industry on its back and rightfully so. But one of the things that we learned as a result of that was that you can try to build relationships in the community for 10 years. And within three seconds, all that trust is gone. And, more importantly, that it doesn't even have to be within your own community.

As bad as everything got, and how negatively affected we were by one single negative incident, I think the same can happen in a positive way. So if we do something really good and present new policies and new strategies to fix community relations and put things in place, I think that could be a model for the rest of the country. And so I realized that I had a lot to contribute. And I wanted to come back to this … industry.

What kind of role are you hoping to take on as the city's next police chief?

Sullivan: I'm very sensitive to the impact that it can have on a department, bringing someone in from the outside. … I move very carefully and deliberately. I pride myself on knowing what I don't know and going to the people. And that's what you're going to see me doing, not just in the department, but outside and within the community. I think I bring a fresh perspective. First of all, I bring a wealth of experience from an even larger agency, and I bring that experience at a time when the department is struggling with its relationship with the community. Some incidents have happened that have obviously created a problem and a lack of confidence. And I just see myself as someone who has demonstrated the ability to rebuild bridges, to regain trust, to be open and available, willing to sit down and willing to acknowledge when we make a mistake, as the police.

Knapp: I think the vision is going to be to offer public service by means of public trust and so that's an all encompassing statement. ... I think the very first thing I need to do is establish and rebuild that public trust that appears to be straining, I mean, all over the country. But there were a few events, I think that may have happened here that could be straining that effort. And I think the idea here is to build that first. Because once we build public trust, everything else starts to fall into place.

We call ourselves the law enforcement industry. Yet, if you look, hour by hour and minute by minute at what we do for a living, we're really only enforcing laws less than 10% of the time. So what's going on the other time, right? Well, if you look at that, you open up that view a little bit. And now we're providing public safety. And that's by means of traffic enforcement, things like that; presence at events, and that's for public safety purposes. But then if you back up a little more, and you really look at what else we're doing, it's public service. And I think that that's a conversation that I think most police agencies forget. And I think that that's a conversation that the community expects, and that's not an unreasonable ask. We have to provide service to them and we're going to; we're gonna do that by means of public trust.

Previous police chiefs placed a heavy emphasis on community policing. What does community policing mean to you and will you continue that as the next chief?

Sullivan: Community policing will be the backbone of my administration. But to me community policing has to be reflected in every officer in every assignment in every rank throughout the department. … It makes no sense to have great programs, and I've seen this happen where we, the police department, runs great community programs, great community events, but the minute you get in the car with your family, and you drive away, and you're pulled over by a police officer and treated with disrespect. Well, all that goes away because your perception of the police department is going to be based more on that law enforcement encounter than it will be on that program. So that's really important to make sure that we're policing in a constitutionally correct way, that we're policing in a rational way, and we're policing in a respectful way. We're policing in a way that we are engaging with citizens, even when we have to complete an enforcement action that we're doing it in the same way that we will want a member of our family to be treated.

Knapp: I really want to look under the hood and kick the tires before I do anything. Everything I've seen of the previous chief seems to be ... well thought out and responsible as far as community policing; the few people that I've talked to said he's done an excellent job in that regard. So I'd really want to just evaluate what it is that he's done. You got to diagnose before you prescribe. So, I want to look at it, see what it is that he's doing and continue pushing those efforts forward. But I think part of community policing and building trust is making sure that the community sees that what we're doing is fair and equitable and part of being fair and equitable is that the communities see themselves in their police. So that's one of the things that I want to push for is to bring the police department to a place where it's a little more identifiable to the community.

Racist text messages between law enforcement officers, mishandling of property and evidence, and other controversies are currently surrounding the Wichita Police Department. What are your thoughts on the multiple investigations and audits into the department?

Sullivan: Well, based on what I do know, the idea of having an external, objective third party come in and take a look … that certainly on face value appears to be a good idea. I don't know everything about it. So I look forward to seeing the results of that. … The bottom line is, they do interfere with those officers' ability to do their job. Not quite sure how we expect the community to have trust in someone that uses that type of verbiage, especially communities of color.

Knapp: So certainly, neither one of those two are going to … build trust within the community, but for me to really talk about them in detail, I think is irresponsible because I don't have the big picture. I don't know, really, what was on the text other than what I read in the newspaper. So I know that if it's as described in the newspaper, then it's horrendous. I mean, how can you build public trust, when messages like that are being sent? So obviously that's a huge concern, and something that needs to be addressed. As far as the property room, I really don't know, only because the last thing I thought I saw said that it has something to do with the records management system and the inventory system, and that it's possible that the evidence is not actually missing, that … it's probably just … in a different storage area. And so I can certainly see that as a possibility. … I think you’ve got to let these things play out, as far as the investigation goes.

A year ago, 17-year-old Cedric Lofton died at a county juvenile facility after officers on scene made the decision to send him there rather than a local mental health hospital. How, if at all, should officers handle mental health calls?

Sulivan: I'm a little concerned about the WRAP device they used … and certainly how long the young man was left in that device. That's a matter of concern also, on how that decision was made. I will be looking at the procedures we use.

I want to see every police officer in the Wichita Police Department have CIT training, and be given training on how to best deal with people in mental health crisis. Then, second level is certainly as much as possible, I would want someone from the mental health community embedded in the call center. We can triage calls that come in and say, ‘Well, you know, what? This call is check on the well being of someone that suffers from mental illness, and we can just send out mental health professionals alone.’ We might get another call where there sounds like there's fighting in the background or a family member says he's extremely agitated. And I believe there has to be joint responder teams available to handle something like that. We let the mental health professionals take the lead but the officers need to be there in case at some point something becomes violent, and they can keep an eye on that.

Knapp: I think that there are calls and there are situations that police are probably not the best equipped to go to, even with the additional training of crisis intervention. You got to remember that the police are called for everything. So there are going to be situations where police are going to be called to people … whether they're mentally ill, whether they're homeless, whether they're criminals, the moment there's any nexus to violence… It's such an intricate or complex problem because it's a complex situation.

What is your strategy on how the police department should interact with the homeless community?

Sullivan: As much as possible, we should divert that. But again, police officers have to have the right kind of training. That means in the academy, they're being trained from personnel from homeless services. I think officers also need to know what their options are. Where can they take someone?

As the chief, I would want to work with my partners to make sure that we have low-barrier options for people. … When we do deal with the homeless, we're going to be respectful, like any other citizen; we're going to protect their constitutional rights as much as possible. We're going to understand that there's a lot of mental illness, so when possible get someone to treatment rather than arrest. I'm sure that the district attorney would agree with me on that, in terms of not prosecuting or what I'm going to prosecute, because they had a mental health crisis. We're gonna get them the help that they need.

Knapp: That’s another issue that's not necessarily a police issue. I mean, is it illegal not to have a home? But it's one of those issues that sometimes becomes unsightly, and as cold as that sounds, some community members see it as unsightly to see the homeless on the streets and bags and garbage and things on the street. But I don't think it's a police issue. I think that's a community support issue. So, what I want to do is I want to partner up with different governmental and local government organizations to see how we can do that. Because again, that's another thing just like mentally ill, we have to go because they call us for everything from the cat on the roof to a shooting, but are we really the right population to go out there? And for the most part, I think we're not necessarily the right one, but we're the ones that by default go.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.