Wichita police are now using empty public housing units in multiple neighborhoods. But some who live near the houses would rather see them be used to house people who need it. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

The city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods — which already see a disproportionate police presence — are now seeing police show up in tactical gear to raid vacant buildings even when nothing is wrong.

Officers dressed in military-style fatigues, carrying riot shields and displaying weapons began using the vacant housing for training exercises a year ago, part of an agreement with Wichita’s city public housing department. 

Last year the city decided to no longer use public housing for unhoused people because it is too expensive for the city to maintain the properties. The city Housing and Community Services is making the vacant buildings available to police while it attempts to find buyers for the properties.  

Previously the Wichita Police Department used gun ranges and vacant buildings such as old businesses or storage buildings to conduct training. WPD says training in public housing is better because it provides more realism to actual police raids. 

Residents say the arrangement is not better for them and does not take into consideration the trauma response triggered by such a police presence in a neighborhood. 

“The stress levels and the PTSD that communities experience around policing is real,” said Angela Scott, a neighborhood resident. “It’s a terror to the community.” 

The fear that is created 

Scott and Aonya Barnett, another neighborhood resident, encountered one of these training exercises on a morning walk in the Northeast Heights neighborhood last fall. The scene worried them.

Scott feared that the training was a militia group such as the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, overtaking the house. 

“The dress and look of it just looked like it should not have been there in a neighborhood. It looked very militarized. And we didn’t know what was going on,” Scott recalled. 

Barnett remembers feeling worried. 

“Those kinds of things are just jarring when you see weapons like that, and when you see that kind of action,” Barnett said. “I just wanted to make sure everything was safe, and I wanted to get home safely.”

They are not alone. Jack Patton, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, was walking his dog in his home neighborhood when he too stumbled upon a similar scene — police, in fatigue uniforms, with guns and riot gear surrounding a house near College Hill Park. 

“It was just kind of uncomfortable in a strictly residential area to see heavily armed and heavily equipped officers running up and down the street,” Patton said.

A history of overpolicing and distrust

According to the city, Black neighborhoods are not intentionally targeted for the training exercises. 

“The houses are made available to the departments using them for training based on which ones are currently available and not being renovated or worked on,” said Megan Lovely, a spokesperson for the city, in an email to The Wichita Beacon. 

While Lovely says the houses are chosen by availability and criteria set by WPD, the only city-maintained houses used for training have been in Wichita’s City Council District 1, the district with the highest population of Black Wichitans. 

Black Wichitans are overpoliced, evidence shows. Reports of traffic tickets show Black people in Wichita are disproportionately ticketed by police and more affected by systems that can lead to jail time or minor infractions. 

A report from The Wichita Eagle in 2018 found that police are more likely to use force against Black residents. And a survey from Jensen Hughes, a consulting firm hired by the city, found that one in 10 officers say they “sometimes or regularly see” racial profiling from their fellow officers. 

Black community leaders say this accumulates to a culture of fear and distrust of police presence. 

The effect on the community does not end after the training finishes, explained Scott. The houses are left abandoned and boarded up the rest of the time. In one instance, a junk pile has been left in the driveway, though neighbors of this house say the pile appeared a couple of weeks after the police trained in it. 

The city states that the training is beneficial for the houses because it creates activity in them and “deters crime or vandalism.” However, neighbors report this house used in the training has had a pile of discarded items in its driveway for weeks. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

“Not only is it an eyesore for the community, but when you board up the house in such a way it gives off the image that the house has been underutilized,” Barnett said. “What does that do to the property value of this house? What does that do to the property value of our real estate in the community?” 

Lea McCloud is president of the Benjamin Hills/Pleasant Valley Neighborhood Association, in northwest Wichita between the big and little Arkansas rivers. Police have not trained in McCloud’s neighborhood. She understands why someone wouldn’t want that in their neighborhood, however. 

“If someone reported this to me, it would be disturbing,” McCloud said. “I would call my city councilperson.”

Asked if WPD considered the trauma and fear that may come from seeing police with riot gear in their neighborhood, Juan Rebolledo, a WPD spokesperson, said police view this training as an opportunity to connect with the community. 

“We see that interacting with WPD while in non-critical situations such as training, community events, and community policing helps to build trust and familiarity between residents and the department,” Rebolledo wrote in an email. 

Wichita Police say training in public housing is better for the department and community 

Rebolledo explained that this is a part of WPD’s commitment to provide more and better training to their officers. He said that using the houses provides an extra layer of realism that creates a better training environment.

“Residents identified increased training as a priority for law enforcement and this partnership helps us to provide our officers with better training environments to better meet the needs and expectations of residents,” Rebolledo said. 

“I can see why they want to,” said Michael Birzer, a professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University. Using a real house out in a neighborhood can better simulate what a real police raid might feel like, said Birzer, who is a member of The Wichita Beacon’s community advisory board. 

During the training, WPD goes through a few scenarios inside the vacant housing such as rescue situations, executing search warrants and developing safety plans for unfamiliar locations. 

Birzer said that this is not a new idea for police officers. He brought up Wichita police chief O.W. Wilson, who founded Wichita State University’s school of criminal justice. In the 1930s, he would use an old farmhouse to train his officers. 

“They mocked up a robbery of Fourth National Bank in downtown Wichita. The story was the robbers got away, and they were holed up in this house on the outskirts. And so, that’s where they went and did their training,” Birzer said. 

WPD has also used vacant buildings to train officers, including earlier this year when the department’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team trained in an empty building near the intersection of East Douglas Road and Rock Road. 

Why is public housing used for training Wichita Police standing empty? 

The properties being used by police in the scenes witnessed by Scott, Barnett and Patton were the result of a partnership between WPD and the city’s department of Housing and Community Services.

Starting in April 2022, the city public housing department granted WPD access to train in unoccupied homes. 

The unoccupied homes are sitting empty after Wichita shifted its housing strategy in late January 2022. The shift meant 352 single-family public homes in Wichita’s portfolio would be put on the market and would no longer be used to provide affordable housing. 

The shift away from public housing mirrors other midwestern towns such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City as they too rethink their housing strategy because the price of maintaining the buildings is much higher than what is provided to them through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Lovely, the city spokesperson, said that while the city continues to sell its properties, the public housing department “will make empty properties available for training as long as they remain available in their inventory and as long as it does not interfere with selling or rehabilitation of the properties.” 

Inspectors with the Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department are also allowed to use the homes to train new building inspectors. To use the homes, police and inspectors request a building with certain aspects they want to utilize. 

Patton doesn’t understand why the house he saw being trained in near College Hill Park hasn’t been sold. 

“They have to have 20 developers a day asking to buy the thing. It’s in a pretty decent location and we’ve been seeing a lot of people try to move [to College Hill],” Patton said.

Scott and Barnett also wish the houses were being used to house people instead of for training. 

“We are in a housing crisis and we have empty houses that we give to the police instead?” Barnett said. 

Do Wichita police have other options for training than public housing? 

As the city continues to sell off its old public housing stock, fewer houses will be available for training. The partnership is temporary until the city sells its single-family homes according to Lovely. Other options remain available to WPD. 

Birzer points out that they could do what O.W. Wilson did and train in a house outside of Wichita so there is less potential to disrupt or scare neighbors. 

WPD could also continue to use empty businesses and lots that are not close to residential areas. Police previously utilized buildings made available to them though other partnerships, along with gun ranges, to practice. This option still exists. 

The law enforcement training center is not an option, however. Birzer states the building is already full and there is no space available that could help simulate a raid on that scale. 

Better communication is a solution for some 

Scott, Barnett and Patton all say WPD failed to communicate to them — and adequate warnings should be made. 

“I think the big thing is there’s no warning, you just walk up on it,” Patton said. 

WPD does do some things to notify the neighbors that this training will take place. 

“We knock on doors in the neighborhood several days before each training to talk to them and inform them of what we’re going to be doing and address any concerns,” Rebolledo said. “It depends on each location and the layout of the neighborhood, but typically we do outreach in a three- or four-block radius.”

Closer neighbors have confirmed they were told by police the training was about to take place; the notification of residents in the broader radius could not be confirmed. 

WPD also places signs near where they are training. Scott and Patton did not see signs. Barnett saw a sign the second time she saw the police training in her neighborhood. 

All three also reported that their questions about the training were met with apprehension from the officers there. 

Birzer says that openly communicating and understanding the neighborhood are key to doing any form of training like this. 

“You have got to do outreach to the community. There are still people living around public housing, you got to do the outreach,” Birzer said. 

Brandon Johnson, City Council member for District 1, said he hopes that if these trainings continue, WPD will start to use the neighborhood associations to distribute the information more widely because not everyone likely to come on the scene would live within a three- to four-block radius.

Communication might not be enough

For Scott, better communication would be welcome but would not address the underlying issue. 

“A sign is not enough. Those little babies across the street who want to play basketball? Well, they won’t that day because they are scared,” Scott said. “They are traumatized.”

Barnett agrees. She doesn’t understand why the police are allowed to “play with their guns” only blocks away from where her son is normally picked up by the school bus. 

“The level of harm that is created is real.” Scott said. “Communities are too silent about it. You know it’s not about being anti-police. It’s about being pro-community.”

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.