Lawrence’s new police chief is coming from a small town, but he’s not naive about the differences of a bigger city

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Incoming Lawrence Police Chief Rich Lockhart, right, speaks to Marion "Woody" Woods during a monthly radio interview for 1450 KOKO AM radio station in Warrensburg, Mo. The monthly radio interview was an example of Lockhart's focus of connecting with the community he serves, he said.

On a recent freezing-cold morning in western Missouri, Warrensburg Police Chief Rich Lockhart drove across the small community he has called home for the last five years.

He was on his way to the local radio station, 1450 KOKO-AM, to provide his monthly update to the faithful listeners of Marion “Woody” Woods’ weekly show. But unlike previous appearances on the show — where Lockhart had spoken with Woods about more fun matters, such as golf — this time he gave his final update to the community.

He announced two new hires on the local police force; shared a few thoughts on the importance of law enforcement connecting with the community; and, finally, he said goodbye.

“We’ve really come to feel like Warrensburg is our home,” Lockhart said about himself and his family on the radio. “(But) we’ve got an amazing opportunity to move to a larger community to be a police chief in a larger city, and I had to take advantage of it.”

In a few days, he would return his police badge to the City of Warrensburg, and prepare to move to a community about an hour-and-a-half drive west on the other side of the Kansas-Missouri border.

Later this month, Lockhart, 53, will become the new chief of the Lawrence Police Department, which serves a city almost five times larger than Warrensburg.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

The Warrensburg Police Department entrance pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.

Lockhart’s small-town sensibilities were on full display when the Journal-World followed him around for part of Wednesday. But he also made it clear that he is not naive about the realities of taking a job in a much larger city.

He said he knows there will be more complex issues for him to work on — that he’ll be taking on more responsibility and working in a community where some groups have been critical of law enforcement. There will even be a learning curve for adjusting to Kansas’ laws, because Lockhart has spent his whole career in Missouri.

However, Lockhart said he will also do his best to bring some small-town-style relationship building with him to Lawrence, such as knowing all of his department’s police officers by name. Additionally, there’s an aspect of the Warrensburg community that might have prepared Lockhart for Lawrence’s unique challenges — Warrensburg, like Lawrence, is the home of a university that’s not far from the Kansas City metro area.

Smaller community vs. the city

In Warrensburg, a town of about 20,000 people, Lockhart said he has worked to connect with the community.

That goes beyond just appearing on the radio every once in a while. Lockhart was also a member of the local Rotary club and would regularly have lunch with prominent people affiliated with the University of Central Missouri. He said he enjoys meeting people from the community through avenues like the Rotary club, because it gives him the chance to interact with people in a different context than policing.

He said he’s also made a point during his time in Warrensburg to be out on the streets like his patrol officers. Even though the administrative position required him to do a lot of desk work at the police department headquarters, he said he would still make time to patrol the community himself and get out of the office to make sure he was meeting with the public.

photo by: Contributed

Rich Lockhart

That’s something he’ll want to do in Lawrence as well, but he knows it won’t be as easy to build all of those relationships in a community of nearly 100,000 people.

“Every now and then I’ll go out and take a call, and sometimes things just happen right in front of you,” he said. “I really made it a point to get out and meet people, talk to people and answer questions. A lot of times people just have questions, and that gives you a chance to answer those questions in a positive interaction.”

As for his day-to-day job of leading the force, he said he doesn’t expect that to be too much different in the grand scheme of things. His responsibilities will still be largely the same — leading the police force initiatives, working with city management and recruiting new officers, among other things.

When it came to recruiting officers, particularly with a focus on diversifying the force, he said he thought he had done well in Warrensburg. The two new hires he announced during his radio interview were both women, helping increase the total number of female officers in Warrensburg to nine, or about a third of the force. That’s much higher than the national average, which is about 13%, according to a USA Today report.

He said during his radio interview he believes in diversifying the police force to better mirror the community it serves, particularly in groups that are underrepresented in police forces, such as people of color.

“That brings a really strong message to your community as well,” he said. “If we look more like the community we serve, that will make us a better police department.”

Community leaders in Warrensburg appreciated Lockhart’s work on diversifying the police force. Interim Warrensburg City Manager Danielle Dulin said as much in an email to the Journal-World, calling Lockhart’s commitment to training and developing officers his “greatest impact on this community.”

Another college town

Lawrence may be a lot bigger than Warrensburg, but they have one big thing in common: Both are college towns.

Warrensburg is the home of the University of Central Missouri. If you visit the city, you’ll soon get to know the university’s athletic mascot — there are red mules plastered around town and windows painted with messages of support for the teams.

Like KU, the University of Central Missouri has its own police force, but the university’s police officers are also commissioned as Warrensburg officers. That means along with their work responding to calls on campus, they would help the Warrensburg police department with calls elsewhere in town.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

The University of Central Missouri is located in Warrensburg, Mo.

Working closely with other law enforcement agencies will be something Lockhart will need to do in Lawrence as well. He said he’s already briefly met with Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister and KU Police Chief Nelson Mosley.

“We all want to be better, so when somebody needs something, I think it’s important to help,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart said that Warrensburg, as a college town, has seen its share of crimes by students. He also said the most common offenses in the community are property crimes, like thefts, which is similar to Douglas County.

But there have also been more serious and violent crimes in the community. Some of these violent incidents occurred because the community attracted gang members from larger cities.

In one recent shooting in Warrensburg, Lockhart said gang members from Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis crossed paths in town and began shooting at each other. When he spoke to Lawrence police officers, he said he heard similar stories.

“Violent crime is not much of an issue here, and it’s typically not people from here, which is really unusual,” Lockhart said. “But the university — and I’m sure Lawrence is the same way — draws people who aren’t university students from Kansas City and St. Louis.”

Working with constituencies

Leading a larger city’s police department will be more complex than Lockhart’s job in Warrensburg, simply because there are more groups of people the chief of police needs to answer to.

Lockhart said he learned that during his time working as an officer in Kansas City, Mo.. He recognized that the Kansas City department was difficult to lead because there were many different constituencies that wanted different things, and the chief would generally be in conflict with someone at any given time. He said that was less of a problem in a smaller town like Warrensburg.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

A water tower in Warrensburg, Mo.

In Lawrence, like in Warrensburg, Lockhart will be supervised by the city government and elected officials, and he will need to answer to the general public about the police department’s handling of reported crimes and how officers interact with the public.

But “the public” encompasses many different groups of people in Lawrence, he said, and some of those groups have been critical of law enforcement. Lockhart said he thought the Lawrence community has much more “Kansas City-like competing constituencies” than Warrensburg, and it will be a challenge for him to manage all of them as chief.

That’s where relationship building will be important, he said. During his tenure in Warrensburg, he said he would ask his officers to interact with people in the community even when they weren’t responding to calls. For example, he said that officers might stop at downtown businesses to greet the people there, and that they would patrol by walking around sometimes rather than sitting in their vehicles all day.

But it’s not just the public and the city leaders Lockhart will have to answer to — it’s also the police force itself.

A key difference between Lawrence and Warrensburg is the presence of a labor union, which will be something Lockhart hasn’t had to navigate as a chief. Lawrence’s police force is unionized, while Warrensburg’s force is not. However, Lockhart said he is not ignorant of police unions. He previously was a member of one while he was a police officer in Kansas City, Mo.

Lockhart said his focus on building relationships is not just for the community, but for his department’s workforce as well. On the radio, he said he knew the names of all 27 of his officers in Warrensburg, something he plans to do in Lawrence as well. But he acknowledged it might take a while to get to know everyone, because Lawrence employs more than 150 officers.

Additionally, when Lockhart would respond to calls himself, he would not only be improving his relationship with the community, but with his police force, he said. In one instance, when there was a shooting in downtown Warrensburg, he was the first officer to arrive on the scene. He said he “got a lot of street cred” for that with his officers.

His relationship-building efforts seemed to have worked in Warrensburg. On social media posts about his impending exit from the community, several Warrensburg residents were seen congratulating him on his new position and thanking him for his service to their community.

And on the air, Woods did the same.

“I wish the best of luck in Lawrence, Kansas,” Woods said on the radio. “I’m sorry to see you go.”

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