Kansas governor picks high-ranking DEA official to take over embattled highway patrol
TOPEKA — The Kansas governor chose a high-ranking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official Friday to head the state highway patrol, replacing a retiring superintendent who is facing federal lawsuits over the agency’s policing and allegations that he sexually harassed female employees.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s appointment of Erik Smith came on retiring Superintendent and Col. Herman Jones’ last day. Until Smith can take over as superintendent July 7, patrol Lt. Col. Jason DeVore, who also was named as a defendant in the sexual harassment lawsuit pursued by five patrol employees, will serve as the interim leader.
Smith has strong ties to Kansas. He is a native of the small central Kansas town of Ellsworth, holds a criminal justice degree from Friends University in Wichita, and served nine years with the Sedgwick County sheriff’s office, also in Wichita, before joining the DEA. He has been chief of the DEA’s Inspection Division since 2021.
Smith’s appointment must be confirmed by the Kansas Senate next year. Lawmakers are out of session for the year, but a committee of Senate leaders will determine this summer whether Smith can serve as acting superintendent until a confirmation vote.
Kelly had faced pressure from the Republican-controlled Legislature to dismiss Jones, but he announced in February that he would retire. In announcing Smith’s appointment, Kelly made no mention of the allegations surrounding Jones and the patrol and thanked Jones for his 45 years in law enforcement. In a statement released by the governor’s office, DeVore thanked Kelly for her “steadfast support” of the agency.
A federal judge is considering the legality of a patrol tactic known as the “Kansas two step,” in which troopers make traffic stops and then draw out their interactions with drivers, allegedly so that they get time to find incriminating information or get a drug-sniffing dog to the scene. The judge had a trial last month in a lawsuit that argues that troopers use the tactic even when they have no reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Critics contend that the patrol targets motorists coming from other states where marijuana is legal. Kansas is among the few states with no legalized form of marijuana.
Meanwhile, a trial is scheduled in September in the sexual harassment lawsuit against Jones, DeVore and the state, alleging that the female employees faced a hostile work environment.
Jones has denied allegations of improper conduct, and Kelly has stood by him, telling The Topeka Capital-Journal in December that the state conducted two independent investigations and found “no substance to the allegations.”
Jones and DeVore settled a third lawsuit last year, filed by two majors who alleged that they were pushed out of the patrol in 2020 in retaliation for helping female employees file sexual harassment complaints. The patrol restored the two men to their previous positions, and they received more than year’s worth of back pay.