Kansas City, Kansas Police Are Trying Something New To Get Unlicensed Cars Off The Road: Teach Driver Education | KCUR 89.3
Ulisa Arreola-Campos had a lot to do when she was due in court for unlicensed driving.
The Kansas City, Kansas teenager had just come out of a month-long hospital stay after being shot simultaneously by COVID-19 and appendicitis. Her mother was also lying down – she broke her leg in several places when she fell on a public bus.
Ulisa, a sophomore high school student, was trying to run online classes and help her three younger siblings with their schoolwork as they all stayed home during the first months of the pandemic in 2020 .
âThe virtual school was not doing well for me,â she said. “I had a lot of going on.”
A few months earlier, while her mother was working, Ulisa had borrowed a friend’s car to go to a CVS store to buy medicine for a sister. She didn’t have a driver’s license and was counting on luck to make a quick run. A police officer arrested her and issued tickets for driving without a license and without proof of insurance.
Ulisa was assigned a date to appear virtually at the municipal court. But she was panicking over her tank notes. Faced with the choice of connecting to the class or to the court, she opted for the class. Now, with two tickets, she had two arrest warrants on file.
By age 16, Ulisa had fallen into a trap familiar to hundreds of low-income teens, immigrants and adults around Kansas City. Because the region mainly lacks reliable public transport, people regularly drive without valid permits. But the consequences often include court dates, escalating fines, and bewildering encounters with law enforcement and legal bureaucracies.
“For undocumented children, children of color, below the poverty line, their first experience with the police is getting tickets and seeing their car towed,” said Matt Tomasic, executive director of the Kansas City Police Track League, Kansas.
These initial experiences, coupled with increasing warrants and fines, often force young people to continue driving without a license and insurance, posing a significant risk to themselves and to others on the roads.
Tomasic, a former policeman from Kansas City, Missouri, wants to change that narrative. So he and the new Kansas City, Kansas police chief created what could be the nation’s first police-run driver training school.
Dozens of young people gather daily at the Police Athletic League (PAL), located in an old Catholic church in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.
Some learn gardening, others the art. Most come for the gym facilities and the boxing ring at the center of what was once the church sanctuary. The space is still used today as a sanctuary. It’s a place where kids in some of the region’s toughest neighborhoods can be safe and connect with adults they trust.
While chatting with the teenagers, Tomasic was struck by the number of them who had been ticketed for driving without a license. Others just hadn’t been caught yet. They drive because their parents don’t have a license – and often can’t get them because they are undocumented immigrants or don’t speak enough English to pass a driving test.
Tomasic knows that KCK schools no longer offer driver training. And it is sure that PAL teens cannot afford the cost of over $ 400 for private education. So he decided to create a course.
Karl Oakman, who in June was sworn in as chief of the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department, immediately saw the value of Tomasic’s idea.
âWhen you look around the country, often when you see problems between the police and the community, it all starts with a traffic stop,â he said. “So it was a good opportunity for the police department to teach young people the correct way to operate a motor vehicle.”
Two KCK police officers are assigned to PAL. Oakman tagged one of them, Officer Joey Reyes, to become a certified driving instructor.
For Reyes, that meant 60 hours of classroom and on-road training.
âImagine going to school for something you’ve been doing your whole life,â he said. But he persevered, and PAL’s first driver training course began in the fall with eight students.
Ulisa Arreola-Campos was among them. But she admitted that she might have a problem. She confided in the other PAL police officer, PJ Locke, about the tickets on her file.
Locke did a computer check and found the tickets. He also found the arrest warrants issued after Ulisa missed court. Until all of this could be cleared, she could not get a driver’s license.
Locke helped the teen post a bond and get a new court date. He accompanied Ulisa to court and made an agreement with the prosecutor. Insurance charges were dropped after Ulisa provided proof that the car was insured when it was pulled over. With the PAL in front of the money, Ulisa paid a fine of $ 150 for driving without a license.
But that was not the end of the matter.
The court clerk informed Ulisa that she would have to pay the Kansas Department of Revenue a reinstatement fee of $ 125 for each ticket she received, even though proof of the change in insurance was rejected.
Navigating the bureaucracy took weeks and involved multiple documents, mailings, and more costs to get the liability insurance required by the state. Eventually, after spitting out over $ 500 in fines, deposits, and fees, Ulisa received her driver’s license.
âI don’t know what I would have done without PJ, Joey and Matt,â Ulisa said. âThey have connections and I have nothing. Without them, I still wouldn’t be allowed to drive.
PAL, which is mainly funded by private donations, helped Ulisa pay the fines. Her staff have also helped her find a job at a Walmart so she can help support her family while her mother continues to recover from her leg injury. Tomasic used his connections to enroll Ulisa in Bishop Ward High School, where her grades bounced back.
âThe environment I’m in, the cops are the wrong people,â Ulisa said. âBeing around PAL completely changed my view of cops. They are human beings, not the person everyone is afraid of.
Although Ulisa’s driving license saga has gone well, Tomasic said he remains appalled at the difficulties he has encountered on his way.
“PJ has been a police officer for 18 years and knows the justice system and how it works,” Tomasic wrote in an email he sent to members of his board and others.
âEveryone he met, from the prosecutor to the clerk, understood our goal and wanted to help Ulisa. Despite all of this, PJ felt completely frustrated. I am convinced that it is virtually impossible for our teenage members to navigate this process without assistance. “
Rules of the road
On a cold Saturday morning in December, fine sunlight crept through the stained glass windows of the old church which is the headquarters of the Kansas City, Kansas Police Athletic League. Christmas lights were flashing on the ropes of the boxing ring.
No one was boxing this morning. Instead, Police Officer Reyes, clad in a sweatshirt and cap, was teaching a driver training course. The topic was lane changes.
âA nephew of mine decided to change lanes on a freeway really, really fast,â Reyes told the six students sitting behind folding tables. “It didn’t end well.”
For Bianca Carmona, who was visiting PAL, the material was familiar. She took Reyes’ classes and progressed to on-road training – in a car with passenger-side brakes provided by the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department.
âI’m improving in reverse,â said Bianca. “I had a little trouble with that.”
In fact, driving is nothing new for the 15-year-old high school student. Like many teenagers she knows, she occasionally drives herself and her siblings.
âEverything is quite far, so you have to drive,â she said. “I would get nervous running into a cop.” “
Bianca’s friend Yuridia Sanchez came to Reyes’ class with less experience on the road.
âI probably never would have driven without Joey because my parents didn’t trust me to drive,â she said. “Joey has patience and he trusts me.”
Reyes’ affection for PAL’s teens comes in the form of jokes while he teaches and his willingness to survive a few close encounters, like the day Yuridia “almost killed a mailbox,” as he says so.
âIt was the first day I was learning to drive,â she laughed. “I was turning and the mailbox was right there.”
Kansas law requires teenage drivers to spend a minimum of 50 supervised hours in the car with a licensed driver 21 years of age or older in order to obtain a full license. For PAL teens who do not have such an adult in their family or close circles, that person will be Reyes.
âAt first he was a little worried,â Oakman said. âBut then you realize how good you’ll be doing, not just for individual families, but for the KCK community as a whole. “
In addition to teaching the rules of the road, Reyes’ course covers topics such as insuring his vehicle and updating permits and registrations.
âAll of these things can help alleviate the situation for drivers who encounter police in an unfortunate manner,â Oakman said.
The chief said he hoped to eventually see some of Reyes’ student drivers in the KCK Police Force.
Tomasic said his goal is for at least 100 PAL members to take Reyes’ course and get their driver’s licenses. His research found no other police department that proactively trains and authorizes teenage drivers. But Tomasic hopes that will change.
“I hope every police department looks at this and says, ‘we need it,'” said Tomasic. âIt makes sense on so many levels. I don’t know of any other way to have as much of an impact on relationship building as this one.
This story was originally posted on Flat terrain.