By Grayson Barnes
WICHITA - Sgt. Don Kimball of the Wichita Police Department (WPD) is a night shift Field Supervisor at Patrol South. He didn’t expect his 5:30am e-mail to Police Chief Gordon Ramsay to get a reply for days, let alone in an hour. “That just tells me how committed he is to the LGBTQ community,” laughed Kimball.
As a 25-year veteran of the WPD, and, by his admission, “the only truly out gay male officer” he knows of, Kimball has seen the department’s attitudes about the LGBTQ community and LGBTQ WPD employees change a lot.
“Traditionally the situation has been one of mistrust,” Kimball said. He’s seen it in the police force and on the streets. This was difficult for him because he wanted to be a cop. “There were places I wouldn’t apply because I was told they didn’t want gay police officers,” he said. However, he believes attitudes have changed since Stonewall, “with one or two steps forward, another back, and then, recently, a surge ahead.”
That latest surge he referred to is the development of two LGBTQ Liaison posts at the WPD. Kimball’s wee hours message to Chief Ramsay was to thank him for attending a Wichita community vigil after the Pulse nightclub shooting last year. After that e-mail, Chief Ramsay created the Liaison positions. The two openings were filled last August by Kimball and Sgt. Vanessa Rusco.
Their job is to foster interaction and understanding with the LGBTQ community by connecting with organizations, businesses, and individuals. “We want them to know what we have to offer, and,” Kimball said, “what they can teach us that we need to know.” For him, it is all about developing relationships so that everyone’s lives and access to the law can improve.
“Right now, Kansas doesn’t have a hate-crime law,” Kimball added, “but Wichita has a City Ordinance that covers some of that.” This is Ordinance 5.01.010, titled Ethnic Intimidation and Bias Crimes, which besides the title, embraces sexual orientation and gender identity along with additional categories. An offender can be charged with anything from a fine to jail time, depending on their crime.
Kimball and Rusco also represent the WPD at LGBTQ events. Kimball hopes one day the WPD will march in the Pride Parade.
Besides outreach, the Liaison Officers’ duties are to help “educate new officers about appropriate interaction with the LGBTQ community and help guide policy,” that will affect the WPD as well as the city itself. They are also charged with improving the reporting on LGBTQ hate crimes. The problem is hate crime victims rarely feel safe to report.
In order to change that, a program was unveiled last month called “Safe Harbor.” The nine Starbucks stores in Wichita posted signs that identify the businesses as places that victims of hate crimes can seek refuge.
Starbucks is the flagship here for this program, which started in Seattle Starbucks in 2015 under the title “Safe Place.” It was renamed for Wichita to distinguish it from the local youth safety program. Starbucks employees received training on how to help a victim, how to report what they see, what constitutes a hate crime, how to operate within company policy, and, most importantly, their responsibility to call 911 so law enforcement can help. The victim can stay in the store until the police arrive. “Safe Harbor” is open to any business by contacting the LGBTQ Liaisons.
Kimball knows the work he and Rusco are doing will also help LGBTQ employees at the WPD, who, in the past, have largely remained under cover. “It will provide a changed culture within the police department,” he said. “I want to facilitate and foster a positive culture [for LGBTQ WPD employees] without the fear that being who they are will adversely affect their careers.”
Kimball’s LGBTQ Liaison duties are in addition to his regular night shift. He and Rusco often attend meetings on days off or evenings. For him, those can be during the time he’s usually sleeping. It also means he’s away from his husband, to whom he was legally married four years ago in California before marriage equality passed, though they’ve been together for 17. “I can’t imagine life without him,” Kimball said.
For more information, visit www.wichita.gov/WPD/Pages/Liaisons.aspx, or call Sgt. Don Kimball at 316-350-3447 or Sgt. Vanessa Rusco at 316-350-3400. l