Kan. Police Force's Approach to Fentanyl Driving Down Violent Crime

Nov. 30, 2023
The Kansas City Police Department's initiative to fight fentanyl "the right way" launched in January 2022 and since then, violent crime has significantly dropped, with some rates hitting “historical lows.”

Karl Oakman remembers how crack cocaine was policed decades ago, and he refuses to allow the missteps that still echo to be repeated with the latest drug epidemic.

“We understood early that we’re going to do fentanyl the right way, where we did crack the wrong way,” said Oakman, who was with the Kansas City Police Department in the 1990s during the height of the crack cocaine crisis and since June 2021 has been the Kansas City, Kansas, police chief.

With crack, he told The Star, “It was ‘Put everyone in jail. You’re in possession, you’re using it, we don’t care, you’re going to jail.’”

Today, it’s fentanyl that has flooded the streets, killing more than 850 people in the nine-county Kansas City area since 2018, The Star found. And fighting the drug “the right way” — sending a police and prosecution team to the scene of every overdose death, focusing on the dealers and suppliers and “using the users” to get to them — has prompted results KCK police weren’t necessarily expecting.

The chief’s initiative officially launched in January 2022 and since then, police say, violent crime has significantly dropped with some rates being “historical lows.”

“We relate a lot of that to the way that we’re attacking fentanyl,” said Oakman, who spoke to The Star at length along with narcotics unit Capt. John Diaz.

And after search warrants were executed in fentanyl cases, narcotics detectives seized hundreds of guns and massive quantities of all types of drugs. Officers also have locked up sellers and distributors and helped get users into treatment.

That, police say, helped fuel the dip in violent crime.

As of Nov. 6, there have been 19 homicides this year, which is down 41% from the 32 the department saw in the same period in 2022. Rapes are down 38%, from 93 to 58. And there have been 222 aggravated batteries, a 45% drop from the 405 last year, according to statistics that KCK police provided.

It’s too early to tell, with less than two years of solid data to compare, whether the apparent impact on violent crime numbers will continue. But law enforcement officials are hopeful, and so are some community leaders.

“What we do know is that, obviously, drug trafficking is very detrimental to quality of life,” said Melissa Bynum, the At-Large District 1 commissioner for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/ Kansas City, Kansas. “The goal is to get the drug out of here. … I like all the aspects of the way that the chief is approaching it.”

In addition to what he calls “aggressive enforcement,” Oakman’s initiative includes an additional focus on education and prevention. That includes presentations at schools, meetings and to neighborhood groups. Diaz has done dozens of presentations this year.

The goal is to shed light on what is happening because of fentanyl.

Teens are buying what they think are painkillers or anti-depressants only for their parents and authorities to find out too late that the pills they took — and that caused their deaths — were made with fentanyl. Others — those who struggle with addiction — don’t know the heroin or cocaine they’ve bought was laced with the synthetic opioid, which is 100 times more potent than morphine.

“This is not about putting your kiddos in jail,” Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree told parents during a presentation with Diaz in September. “This is about getting the folks who are putting this drug on our streets.”

Dupree and Oakman, who both grew up in KCK, are working in lockstep to fight the illicit drug.

The Star has reported in recent weeks about the devastation fentanyl has caused, with some families saying their loved ones’ deaths are written off as accidental overdoses and not investigated. Other cases, they say, are stalled because officers say they can’t access cellphones, timely financial records and other evidence.

  • In an ongoing investigation, The Star has exposed the toll fentanyl has taken on the Kansas City region. The series initially focused on how dozens of babies and toddlers have died in Missouri and Kansas after exposure to the drug inside homes, hotel rooms and even in a city park.
  • Then, the investigation narrowed in on the trail of destruction this crisis has left behind and how no age, race or demographic has been spared. The series also focused on investigations of fentanyl deaths and the police agencies that routinely don’t present those cases to prosecutors for possible charges.
  • The Star has helped distribute pocket-sized resource guides at six community events around the KC metro and partnered with health organizations to give out 1,000 doses of naloxone, also known as Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of fentanyl. Those efforts were part of the series with the purpose of equipping our community to prevent opioid-related overdoses or poisonings.
  • In the midst of the Star series, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced a new initiative to address the drug crisis and keep local residents from dying. That includes hiring two “overdose investigators” and creating an overdose fatality review board to analyze real-time data to more quickly understand the devastation fentanyl is causing.

Police in KCK say their strategy is for detectives to investigate every overdose death — gaining crucial information and evidence in the moment — and to get dealers and sellers off the streets, which they acknowledge is not always possible.

One family hit hard by fentanyl says, at this point, they have doubts about KCK police.

“They may say what they’re doing, but they aren’t trying hard enough because I’ve had three deaths in my family in the last year basically from fentanyl, and no one’s gotten in trouble for any of them,” Max Burger said.

Jean Peters Baker, the prosecutor in neighboring Jackson County, said KCK deserves credit for policing fentanyl differently: “We should learn something from our past mistakes, and our major attack on crack cocaine has a reverberating effect. What I really don’t want us to do is go back down that kind of path again.”

A new course

When KCK police get a call on an overdose death, Capt. Diaz is notified no matter the time of day. He then calls in one or both of his narcotics detectives as well as a “support officer.”

They all go to the scene immediately. An assistant district attorney, who responds to all deaths in the county, heads there as well.

Detectives begin the interview process, and the support officer collects evidence, Diaz said, starting with cellphones because drug deals are often set up through apps like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and WhatsApp.

“They’re ultimately ordering on the app and then going to the gas station, parking lot, getting it and leaving,” Diaz said. “They’re not just driving up to the street corner to go buy it. It’s already been pre-arranged.

“So we collect those cellphones and then ultimately get a search warrant, so we can find out who they talked to last before the drug was used.”

With officers at the scene so quickly, police said family members often will tell them crucial information, including who sold their loved one the deadly drug.

Charging someone with causing a death, however, has proved tricky at times.

“You have to have the fact that pill is the one that caused that person to overdose,” Diaz said. “So it’s really easy when I have a text message, ‘I’m gonna buy pills from you,’ (and) two hours later, I’m lying on the ground.

“But if that person bought pills from you and two days later is now lying on the ground, well, was it your pill? Or did they go to someone else in between?”

If KCK police can’t get enough evidence to charge dealers with causing a death, they’ll try to get them on a distribution charge, Diaz said.

“They may be the bottom-level dealer,” Diaz said. “We want to get higher and higher, because you chop the head off a snake, it’ll stop for a little bit. So our goal is to get as high as we can. And then when we can’t get any higher, we take them all down.”

KCK police said this year they have recovered more than 50 pounds of powdered fentanyl — 8 to 9 million potential lethal doses — and 375,000 pills.

And besides drugs, they say they confiscated 275 illegal guns while executing fentanyl-related search warrants from January to August. As Oakman put it: That is 275 guns “that can’t be used in a homicide, can’t be used in a robbery, can’t be used in an aggravated battery or assault.”

The Rev. C.L. Bachus, senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in KCK, said he’s heard how police are combating fentanyl and has sensed a recent drop in criminal activity in the area.

“It appears that you know we got some (crime),” said Bachus, who’s pastored the church since 1971. “But it appears it’s not as brazen as it sometimes has been in the past.

“It looks like something is impacting it in kind of a quiet way. … I appreciate what they’re doing and that they’re keeping crime under pretty good control.”

Family wants answers

Kaylee Dawn Burger died three months ago.

In the early hours of Aug. 17 — just one day, her family said, before a treatment bed was ready for her — Kaylee, 22, overdosed and was rushed to the University of Kansas Hospital.

She died on Aug. 25. Her autopsy said she had fentanyl and methamphetamine in her system.

In the time since that day, Max Burger said he’s never spoken to police, no officer has called about his daughter’s death and he doesn’t even know if it’s being investigated.

He said he doesn’t feel police are taking fentanyl “serious at all.”

A year before Kaylee’s death, his sister Monica Burger also died of fentanyl, he said. His grandchild’s father also died from the drug in 2022.

They all lived in Wyandotte County, “within blocks of each other,” Burger said.

He said he has ideas about where Kaylee got the fentanyl that killed her: “I would tell the cops if they even asked me.

“They never asked me nothing. They never talked to me about nothing. I could have told them some people to ask. What I think is they don’t care.”

Narcotics officers responded to the scene back in mid-August and collected evidence, said Nancy Chartrand, a KCK police spokesperson. Kaylee had already been transported to the hospital but “there was family there on the scene,” Chartrand said.

“Yes, Kaylee’s case is under investigation … yes, unequivocally, yes,” she said. “Hers is under very active investigation.”

The other two deaths — Burger’s sister and the father of his grandson — are also being worked by detectives, she said. Because of the difficulty of these cases, investigations can take months, even years, police said.

Chartrand said police only recently received the “coroner’s report” in Kaylee’s case.

“I talked to the narcotics detective and they’re working on getting the social media records, phone records, all that kind of stuff,” she said.

Burger and his wife, Amber Saale-Burger, said they didn’t know much about fentanyl until people in their lives started dying from it. Now the two are directors of the Kansas chapter of Fentanyl Fathers, a nonprofit led by parents who have lost children to the drug.

“We’re just mad,” said Saale-Burger, who had been in Kaylee’s life since she was 9 and helped raise her since she was 14. “We’re mad that it feels like nothing’s being done. Like, we can’t just let our daughter die in vain. Her voice has to be heard.”

‘Keep the faith’

For all who have lost someone to the drug and seen no one charged yet, the district attorney has a message.

“I say keep the hope and keep the faith,” said Dupree, who is also a Pentecostal pastor. “And I would also say my condolences. No one should have to endure what you’re enduring.”

Only a fraction of the 46 fentanyl deaths this year in KCK — the latest was a 17-year-old — have resulted in charges, a fact the district attorney says bothers him.

“Do I wish we could file charges on every death?” Dupree said. “The answer is yes. But we have to have the evidence.”

He described how an attempted undercover buy in April ended with three KCK officers being shot — one multiple times — when a tactical team tried to arrest suspected fentanyl dealers. The three suspects were also injured.

The officers received “Officer of the Year” recognition on Nov. 16.

It’s not clear how many law enforcement agencies and prosecutors send someone to every drug overdose scene. But Oakman said he hopes more do, because it’s been critical for his department’s fight against a drug unlike any it has encountered.

“These departments that are struggling with violent crime, we’re really trying to get them to try to adopt that model of responding to these overdoses, taking them serious and start that investigation from that night,” Oakman said.

“If an officer calls a week or 10 days later, the families may be like, ‘Whatever, I don’t want to relive that.’ But if we’re right there when it happens, it makes you understand that we’re just as concerned about it as you are.”

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©2023 The Kansas City Star.

Visit kansascity.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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