Several large sheets of white paper are taped to a wall in Tarik Khatib’s office.
Written on them are good and bad leadership qualities that he had Lawrence Police Department employees list as part of a group brainstorming exercise in recent training sessions.
Some might think it’s sappy, but the department’s new chief, who has worked as a Lawrence police officer for nearly 19 years, says there’s a purpose to it.
He wanted the officers to detail how they would like their supervisors to treat them. But he wants the officers to think deeper.
“What we try to stress to them is leadership is not about position,” Khatib says. “It’s not about what your title is, whether you’re a sergeant, captain or chief. It’s about are you or aren’t you leading in your field. You show up as an officer to a scene, and people are not expecting you to become part of the problem.”
Since City Manager David Corliss promoted Khatib in February to replace retired longtime Chief Ron Olin, Khatib has stressed community involvement as a major theme for the department.
His longtime supporters say Khatib, who has a sociology degree, has always thought like that.
“Tarik made an impression on me very early in his career as a person who really understands the importance of maintaining the public trust and engaging the community in a positive way,” said Dan Affalter, a retired longtime Lawrence police captain who supervised Khatib as a detective.
Some department critics are pleased with how Khatib has handled his new responsibility.
“I think a number of things have changed since he became interim chief and, largely, those have been very positive changes,” said Laura Routh, a Lawrence resident who has advocated for more public oversight of the department.
Khatib says he’s trying to put into practice the lessons he’s learned from Olin and from others.
“I’ve been trying to open minds,” Khatib says. “I’ve been exploring concepts and ideas and having interactions and talking about the bigger picture and our role in the community and how we want to transform ourselves into being a more open, transparent department.”
Khatib’s office at the Investigations and Training Center in western Lawrence near Bob Billings Parkway and Wakarusa Drive is lined with reminders of the past, including two photos of sites in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was born.
When Khatib, now 43, was 11, his family fled a civil war there in the mid-1970s.
“Growing up there just keeps things in context. It makes me more thankful for the opportunities that we have here,” he said.
His father, Ashraf Khatib, who was a civil engineer, went to Saudi Arabia to escape the unrest in Beirut. Tarik moved with his mother, Jean Khatib, an American citizen, to suburban Chicago, where her parents lived.
Ashraf Khatib thought the family could return to Beirut within months as it calmed down, but the unrest dragged on. His father would visit Tarik and his two younger brothers, Karim and Ryan, for about a month every year in Lake Forest, Ill., until he died in 1991 at age 50 — still living in the Middle East.
About that time, Tarik graduated from Kansas University and was hired, in the summer of 1992, as a Lawrence police officer.
“At the time I didn’t think it was significant, but looking back at it, it was difficult seeing your father only once a year for many, many years,” he says.
His father missed out on seeing the brothers grow up.
“On a personal note, that is the one thing that sometimes scares me,” he says. “With two boys of my own, having had that experience with my dad, what am I doing to make sure that I’m not setting up the same situation for them?”
He says he does his best to devote time to spend with his wife, Chrisy, and two sons, Colton, 9, and Drake, 6. He typically works later because he helps get the boys ready for school in the morning, but the job is demanding with unpredictable hours. It’s like that for all police officers, he says, and their jobs can put them in dangerous situations.
In the middle of a recent interview, officer Jonathan Evinger brings his latest doctor’s report in to the new chief. Evinger suffered an eye injury and a concussion, prosecutors say, when he tried to arrest a suspect after a Feb. 26 vehicle stop. As Khatib looks the report over, he asks for privacy and leaves the room with Evinger for about 10 minutes — it doesn’t appear to be good news.
“I feel just as responsible for his family — his kid, his wife and the issues that they’re dealing with — as mine,” Khatib says later.
And he relates it back to his officers on the streets.
“They’re just as responsible for the families and the well being of the people they’re dealing with out there,” he says.
When Corliss chose Khatib over three other finalists from outside the department, he said Khatib stood out as the best overall candidate and someone who could take what he called “a very good department” to help it improve further. Khatib had served as interim chief after Olin’s departure for Kansas Athletics Inc.
Sgt. Troy Squire, an evening shift supervisor and former detective sergeant who participated on an interview panel, said all of the candidates were extremely impressive, but that Khatib stood out with his internal knowledge of the department and city — and his new ideas.
“He’s ready to try to implement some of the changes he wanted to make, and a lot of that comes through hard work, time, dedication and interactions he now has to have with everybody at City Hall,” Squire said.
The new chief is still very approachable, said Squire, who has worked with Khatib for 15 years, but he’s busier now.
Khatib says he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to high standards,” he says. “That means sometimes you have to laugh at yourself. Sometimes you go, OK, it’s not about me. It’s about our mission. What are we doing in the community?”
Matt Sarna, the department’s public affairs sergeant, said Khatib has kept an open-door policy since he took over as interim chief, allowing officers and employees or the public to come in often to meet with him.
Sarna said a major project for the department since Khatib took over has been to provide more information to the public, including a revamping of the department’s website to include a map of all crimes reported in the city in 2010 and posting to the website a list of police activity in the last 48 hours.
“They have made some significant improvements to their complaint procedures and to their website, the amount of information that is publicly accessible,” said Routh, who has criticized the department in the past. “I think the department’s transparency has really improved.”
Although Routh initially was disappointed the city’s new police chief was not hired from the outside, she said she’s impressed with how Khatib seems to want to engage the community. She’s still committed to the idea the department needs some form of independent oversight.
“It can give the citizens some measure of confidence that they have a voice in the process of community policing,” she said. “I think it would improve the department’s standing with the citizenry. I also think it would allow the department to develop a better working relationship in terms of getting information and obtaining cooperation from residents.”
Affalter, who retired in 2008 as one of Olin’s captains, said Olin’s and Khatib’s styles differ because Olin was often understated and played things closer to the vest. That’s a move that left him open to criticism from the outside.
“Tarik is more descriptive and chats more, but neither one is good or bad,” Affalter said. “Right now he’s trying to engage people to get folks to believe in the department.”
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said Olin was very formal while Khatib seems to take a more “roll-up-the-sleeves approach.”
“They are very different personalities, but both equally cherish the department,” Branson said.
Olin, who is now director of security and internal controls for Kansas Athletics Inc., said department leaders noticed early on that Khatib was very bright and had a vision for what he wanted to accomplish, as an officer as well as a detective and captain.
“I really don’t see too many differences in style other than the fact that I tried very hard to be low-key and behind the scenes,” Olin said. “And I think he’s a little more motivated to be toward the front of the parade, which is very good. It’s his style, and it will work for him.”
Those who have worked with Khatib the longest say he has grown into the leadership role in the only department he’s ever worked.
And he’s worked in virtually every facet of the department, including leading a joint city-county drug investigations task force.
“He’s very well-versed in all areas of the department, which allows him to have a global perspective when he’s making those decisions,” said Capt. Paul Fellers, who is in charge of the department’s community services division.
Khatib says the department still has challenges. His office is in west Lawrence while the patrol division is based at the Law Enforcement and Judicial Center downtown.
“It separates people, and so the exchange of information is not as good,” Affalter said.
Sarna said Khatib spends time traveling often to sit in on briefings with officers and doing other things to increase his visibility.
Khatib calls the department’s facility situation a “storm on the horizon.” He said having the department in one building could make things run more efficiently.
Another big issue he’s concerned about is Lawrence’s crime rate, which is higher than other similar Kansas and university cities. In addition, the new chief would prefer that officers could spend more time interacting with residents — in hopes of sharing information with them and preventing crimes — rather than spending most of their time reacting to calls, as currently is the case.
The department also is looking for a more efficient way to deploy patrol officers across the city.
Because of the city’s tight economic situation, Khatib also is working to interact with the public more, talking about his vision for the department.
“We have to define ourselves. We have to define what we do in the community,” he says, “because if we don’t, somebody else is going to define it, and it’s usually to our detriment.”