Overland Park police lead community meeting to discuss recent violent crimes near West 79th and Grant

Patti Wehner, whose grandson was shot in northern Overland Park Jan. 29, spoke at Thursday’s community meeting as Police Chief Frank Donchez listened.

Police officials told residents of the northern Overland Park neighborhood hit by a string of three violent crimes in recent weeks that they have deployed additional resources in an effort to prevent future crimes.

But some residents said they wanted to make sure their neighborhood wasn’t being singled out just because it’s made up largely of rental properties.

In light of the recent violent crimes — two shootings and a stabbing — that took place near West 79th Street and Grant Lane, Overland Park police invited the community to share their concerns and learn about the department’s efforts across the city to mitigate crime in the future.

Police Chief Frank Donchez and other department leaders led the conversation with more than 100 members of the public, who gathered Thursday evening at Comanche Elementary, just south of where the crimes took place. Donchez shared some of the department’s goals citywide “to try to prevent this from happening again.”

What police are doing differently

About 6,000 residents live within a mile of the site of the crimes, officers said. Since the second shooting, police have increased visibility in the area with more frequent patrolling.

Police have also started directing more resources toward the 79th and Grant Initiative, a community policing effort in which officers spend 15 to 20 minutes engaging with the community through traffic stops, citizen contacts, building checks and driving through neighborhoods.

So far, they’ve made 21 arrests in the area and completed almost 300 of these “self-initiated activities,” on top of their regular calls for service.

Police said they would not increase patrolling efforts around apartments just because they are rental properties. Instead, they choose the areas to increase patrols based on other factors, such as crime rates.

The Overland Park Police Department is also gradually switching their fleet to more traditional black-and-white vehicles, creating higher visibility.

Here’s what police shared about the crimes themselves

Police Captain. Ray Tisinger asked neighborhood residents to provide officers with information when they see suspicious activity.

Ben Workman, a 17-year-old, died of a gunshot wound last month in his home at The Highlands Apartments near Farley and 79th. Three suspects have been arrested and charged.

A few days after Workman was killed, a juvenile was shot and left in the street at the intersection of Farley and West 79th. Police believe only two suspects were involved in that incident, and both have been arrested and charged.

Related to that case, the victim’s grandmother, Patti Wehner, shared her concerns that the suspects were charged with aggravated assault and not attempted homicide. Donchez said police understood her frustrations, but charges are determined by the district attorney’s office.

Captain James Sutterby provided details on the investigations into the three recent crimes.

Just days later, police investigated a stabbing near West 79th and Grant. Police Captain James Sutterby said they have no suspects or successful leads in the investigation because the victim has not been cooperating or providing any information.

Police shared the following information they believe to be true about the crimes:

  • The three crimes are isolated and unrelated to each other
  • The public is not in any ongoing danger related to these cases
  • In each of the crimes, the victims and suspects were familiar with each other
  • All of the crimes involved at least one individual between the ages of 15 and 18
County Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick discussed the county’s efforts to expand mental health services.

Although Donchez would not directly state whether drugs were involved in each of the cases, he said officers have noticed an increase in drug use among teens, particularly related to marijuana and vapes.

Donchez noted his police force is not fully staffed; the department is down by 6 or 7 percent of its 255-officer capacity, putting more strain on patrolling resources. He also called for the need to expand mental health resources, citing an average seven mental health-related calls officers responds to each day.

County commissioner Janeé Hanzlick, who also attended the meeting, said mental health is one of the county’s top three priorities this coming year. She encouraged residents to reach out to her to share their concerns and ideas.

“In fact, just today, we were talking about how we can increase the availability of mental health services and strengthen and expand those services,” Hanzlick said, “because I 100 percent agree that that is a big issue that we need to address at the earliest stage possible.”

Some residents at the meeting suggested that police are targeting rental properties, saying that renters get a bad reputation because of a few bad eggs. But others thanked police for their level of involvement in the community, even among neighborhoods primarily filled with apartment complexes.

Other residents accused the police of “not doing enough,” but a few residents, including one mother who has children of color that attend Comanche, said that was untrue. She also cautioned her neighbors against stereotyping against youth, especially youth of color.

“Just because a kid is walking up the street, please don’t call them in because they look suspicious, because they have a hoodie on and happen to be the wrong color,” said the resident, who is white. “My kids are of color too. Just be aware and wave to the kid and say hello. Nine out of 10 times, they’re going to say hi back. Don’t just peer out your windows and think that something bad is going on.”

The resident implored her neighbors to get more involved at police-led community events than just by attending one public meeting when violent crimes happen one after another.

The police officers thanked the public for attending; to them, it showed that the residents care about what’s going on in their community. Officers said they want to continue building these relationships through school programming, walking through neighborhoods and community events.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to build up trust with you, have you have faith in us and believe in us,” said Police Captain Ray Tisinger. “Give us an opportunity to come into your neighborhoods, your homes, and earn your trust and earn your faith.”