Just Another DART Day

Situation Defused: Decision To Close House
Due To Fire Hazards Ends With A 'Thank You'

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2019

* Only the first name of the homeowner is mentioned in this article.


“Thank you.” 

Those might be the last words you’d expect a man to say after being told he must vacate his house—that he’ll only have a few minutes to gather some personal belongings and go. When Keith Harrison, an investigator for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, declared that a house on Highland Street in Kansas City was too hazardous to continue being occupied, the home’s owner, Calvin,* initially raised his voice in protest.

He was frustrated that his smoking marijuana—something he candidly admitted to—had led to the county’s Drug Abatement Response Team
(DART) arriving at his home on a sunny Wednesday morning in late September. But Calvin quickly came to the realization DART had possibly saved his life.

Hazards Found In The Dark
HAZARD SPOTTED IN THE DARK — Despite having to conduct his inspection in near total darkness, Kansas City Fire Marshal Barry Aldridge spots one of several spliced and exposed wires, while a city codes inspector documents the violation.

A Deathtrap Waiting To Be Sprung



His home, in the state DART found it, was essentially a deathtrap waiting to be sprung. Exposed electrical wires and the gasoline used to operate two generators set off alarm bells, when Kansas City fire marshal Barry Aldridge spotted them as he used a flashlight to carefully make his way through the darken house. One spark could have ignited a fire or even set off an explosion.

Aldridge shook his head. The generators—one inside the house connected to the fuse box through a string of extension cords, the other on the front porch—were the house’s sole power source. They might have eventually put Calvin and anyone else staying inside the house into a permanent slumber, unaware the carbon monoxide the generators emit—a silent killer—was filling their lungs.

'There's No Way We Can Let Anybody Stay In Here'



“I don’t know if they might have a baby in here or not, but it doesn’t take too much CO to kill an infant,” Aldridge said ominously. “You shouldn’t have a generator on the front porch, right outside the front door, and you sure as heck shouldn’t have one inside the house.

“There’s no way we can let anybody stay in here.”

Aldridge is an essential member of the DART team, which Harrison leads. DART is tasked with using all legal means available to shut down homes that have been used for illegal drug activities. Harrison’s teammates include fire marshals like Aldridge, police officers, codes inspectors and, if necessary, Family Services caseworkers.

As they explained to Calvin his house posed a deadly threat to himself, his family and possibly their neighbors, Harrison and Aldridge skillfully de-escalated a tense situation. Calvin quickly calmed down. He realized DART’s primary objective was simply to keeping everyone safe. 

He eventually told Harrison, “Thank you. I will take care of this.” 

The Knock On The Door Drug Dealers Dread



Calvin’s home was one of three the DART team inspected on this particular Wednesday, which Harrison has designated “DART Day”—the day each week when the team assembles to visits houses identified as requiring follow-up inspections. (As was the case with Calvin’s home, the properties DART inspects will have been previously involved in successful police investigations, including searches arising from reports of drug crimes or other criminal activity.)

DART has earned a reputation for shutting down drug houses, and Harrison warns he can be “that knock on the door drug dealers have been dreading.” But he also emphasizes that the primary objective of DART is rather simple: to assure the houses the team inspects are safe and, in turn, to improve safety for the entire neighborhood.

He said about 80% of inspections will not result in a house being ordered vacated. However, the visit from DART can serve at least two purposes: pointing out minor and not so minor code violations that need to be corrected and signaling to the home’s owner and occupants that the house is now very much on DART’s radar.

Investigator Setting The Record Straight While Talking With Home Owner
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT — After being told "everybody smokes weed," DART Investigator Keith Harrison sets the record straight: that marijuana use is illegal and "not everybody smokes marijuana."


Not Everyone Smokes Marijuana!



When the DART team arrived at his home, Calvin asked a question that Harrison hears often: “Yes, I smoke marijuana, but isn’t it legal?”

Harrison responded, “No, marijuana is still illegal,” and then he explained to Calvin that, although he had not yet been charged with a crime, he certainly could be after his case is presented to the Prosecutor’s Office for review.

“We hear that all the time,” Aldridge said, shaking his head. “They’ll tell us, ‘Everybody does it. Everybody smokes weed.’ No, not everybody does.”

When Harrison and Aldridge decided Calvin’s house must be sealed due to the numerous code violations that made it a high risk for fire, Harrison pointed out the house could not be re-occupied until a licensed electrician fixes the wiring, the utility company and water departments restore services, and another inspection is completed. Calvin told the police officers he was a contractor and had just not taken the time to fix up his own house.

“I think by the time we were done talking with him he understood how dangerous this whole situation was,” Aldridge said. “This isn’t about kicking people out of their houses. For me, it’s about getting them out of a dangerous situation before somebody gets hurt."

Notices To Vacate

Lucky To Have Avoided Disaster



If Calvin and his family lived in the house for three months using only generators, as he claimed they had, Albridge noted, “These folks got really lucky.” 

Most people in Calvin’s situation, arrive at DART’s office within a day to acquire a 30-day work access permit that allows repairs on the home to begin during specified daytime hours. (These permits will only be renewed if progress on the home can be shown.) DART stickers placed on the front door make it clear that the house is, otherwise, to be unoccupied. Violators risk “arrest and prosecution.”


Where Have We Heard This Before?



After Calvin eventually thanked Harrison and Aldridge, the DART team moved on to one more house, where only two uncovered outlets were found. Aldridge instructed the young man living in the house with his aunt to notify the owner to have these minor violations fixed. 

While he and Harrison spoke, the young man sounded like Calvin had previously, saying, “Yes, I smoke marijuana. Everyone does.”

This “DART Day” was not especially eventful, Harrison said, before adding, “Not all of them are like this. Some can be harder.”


A Keith Talking To Owner
EXPLAINING WHAT DART DOES — DART Investigator Keith Harrison explains to Calvin that his home is being inspected as a follow up to the Kansas City Police investigating drug activity.

Also Looking At Properties With Reports Of Violence

This “DART Day” began with a visit to a large house on Tracy Avenue in Kansas City. Neighbors first contacted the COMBAT Hotline about suspected drug activity in the house; then just as police were beginning to investigate these reports the situation escalated dramatically: a man was shot to death inside one of the house’s apartment units.

The DART team followed up.

Although the police’s initial drug investigation had not yet merited calling in DART to inspect the house, the homicide brought DART into play through its recent partnership with the Kansas City No Violence Alliance (NoVA). Working with NoVA, DART now also looks at properties that have had reports of violent criminal activities—regardless of whether or not drugs are involved.

Keith Harrison, an investigator with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, leads the DART team. He praised the owner of the house on Tracey Avenue for acting quickly. She cooperated fully with DART. She had already evicted the woman whose nephews she believed were the ones causing problems.

“This owner did what we would want every owner to do,” Harrison said. “She told us the woman in the apartment was a nice lady, but she had these relatives doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. We see that a lot, a relative who is being aggressive, causing the trouble, not the person who actually owns the house or rents the apartment.”

Keith POLICE
FIRST ONES IN — Police officers are the first ones through the door to assure a property is secure before a DART inspection begins.

Inspectors found no code violations inside the apartment where the homicide occurred. It was empty, except for a chair and sofa.

The fire marshal did suggest installing a smoke detector in the apartment’s bedroom. He also recommended clearing some items (boxes and furniture) from the house’s basement, not because they were a violation, but because they would “feed a fire” if one broke out.

Harrison is pleased when an inspection like this goes well. The owner was responsive. The problem tenant was removed. He hopes the house will not be getting mentioned in any new reports.

Harrison’s focus isn’t on any single house, however. His goal is improving whole neighborhoods.

“We try to bring back decency and a level of peace and security in the neighborhood,” he said. “Neighbors have thanked us for our service. They appreciate that DART is doing all we can about these problem houses; they are thankful that their voices are being heard and that we are following up on what they have reported.”