David Inkelaar speaking at the FOP press conference.
Wichita Fraternal Order of Police President David Inkelaar at a press conference on Oct. 16 criticizing mayoral incumbent Brandon Whipple. (Trace Salzbrenner/The Wichita Beacon)

If only it could find them, Wichita would put another 75 police officers to work.

But a full 10% of the police jobs in the city’s budget remain unfilled.

Mayor Brandon Whipple touts work that he’s done with the City Council to make those jobs available. Lily Wu, who’s facing off with Whipple in the Nov. 7 election, contends that the incumbent bears responsibility for the police department’s problems in recruiting more officers.

She’s got the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, backing her campaign to unseat Whipple. The group is upset that the mayor has sometimes criticized the department for what he saw as excessive force.

The police labor shortage worsened in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The shortfall of officers echoes a nationwide trend.

A public records request by The Wichita Beacon shows that at the end of September 2023, three in four of the police department’s open positions were for uniformed officer roles at the department. The rest, 25 jobs, were support staff.

That marks the highest vacancy rate at the department since 2015. The number of uniformed police officers employed at WPD is also the lowest it’s been since 2015. 

The candidates have clashed over whether Whipple bears responsibility for the shortfall and whether Wu has a solution for putting more officers on the street. The incumbent says he’s protected police funding since his term began. Wu says Whipple has alienated the force.

Wu contends the mayor’s strained relationship with police makes it harder to recruit more officers.

The department “has a recruitment and a retention crisis,” she said at a mayoral forum this month. “The first thing we must do is restore the relationship between the mayor’s office and the police department.”

A few days before, the FOP claimed in a press conference that Whipple sent out a campaign mailer falsely insinuating that the organization endorsed him. 

That mailer, paid for by the Kansas Democratic Party, states that Whipple’s “crime fighting strategies are working for Wichita.” It also provides three examples of Whipple’s platform. He claims to have helped increase the police budget, increase the number of mental health first responders and reduce the number of catalytic converter thefts.  

But the FOP said his record of publicly calling out police has damaged the reputation of the department and that has discouraged people from applying for positions on the Wichita force — and triggered an exodus to other police departments. 

It cited Whipple’s comments after a confrontation between an off-duty officer and two teenagers at a roller rink on New Year’s Eve.

At the time, the mayor said at a press conference: “I saw a grown, trained, armed man with 100 pounds on that kid posture up and try to kill him with a punch like that.”

Whipple also publicly denounced officers in the department who were sending racist text messages to one another.

“We should not be tolerating this type of behavior from any employees in our city,” Whipple said in a video response. “This is not the values of our city.”

Culture struggles at WPD 

An investigation by consulting firm Jensen Hughes found that the culture at the police department poses the leading problem in keeping and recruiting employees. 

It found that “the current internal culture in the WPD is unhealthy, and at times toxic.” Employees reported a lack of training, fair promotion opportunity and career development for their job dissatisfaction. 

Wu said that trust needs to be rebuilt between the mayor’s office and police. The report backed that observation. The consultant’s surveys found that many employees felt that the mayor, along with the city manager, did not support their work and wanted to exert too much control over the police department. 

Whipple’s claims on the Wichita police shortage

But Whipple contends, “absolutely, I am pro-police.”

At a mayoral forum in July, Whipple said every year he’s been mayor has started with a police force that was as big or bigger than during previous administrations.

He also said the open positions at the department exist because he and the City Council have voted to maintain WPD’s budget. 

Whipple’s first claim is true but misleading because the number of police employees has dropped at times. For instance, Wichita’s police force employment in September 2022 and September 2023 was lower than when Whipple began his term as mayor. 

But at the beginning of the year, police training courses for WPD end, and that pushes down the vacancy rate. 

His second claim matches his record. Whipple took office in 2020. Since then, nine full-time positions have been added. He voted in 2020 to increase the police budget, allowing for more recruitment and resources. He has continued to vote to increase the budget and pay for the department and voted for the new FOP contract in 2021

Whipple disputed the claims that he is not working to fix the shortage. He said in an interview with The Wichita Beacon that the 100 open positions exist because the city has continued to fund the police even as more people have left the department. He also said he supports Police Chief Joe Sullivan and wants to help him fill those open roles. 

The Wichita Beacon reached out to the Wichita Police Department and Sullivan for comment, but they did not respond.

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