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Kansas City Police To Get Body Cameras, But Civil Rights Groups Still Call For Chief To Step Down

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A protester makes clear her point to a Kansas City, Missouri, officer.

The NAACP and others also want Kansas City to regain local control of its police department. On the same day, the city gets $2.5 million donated for body cameras, which are among activists' top demands.

Hours after local civil rights groups called for Kansas City’s head of police to resign, Chief Rick Smith told the hundreds gathered for a "Unity March" that community members were donating millions to equip police with body cameras.

Mayor Quinton Lucas had said a day earlier getting body cameras — which are one of the main requests from activists — couldn’t be done without federal funding.

“Everybody is going to look back at this moment and say that we knew we were beginning a change in Kansas City and in this country," Lucas told the diverse crowd at the march, which was an joint effort among the mayor’s office, the city council, police, fire departments and churches.

Activists who agreed with the civil rights groups’ assertions about the police department held a counterprotest at the J.C. Nichols Fountain across from the Plaza — the site of nearly a week of protests, and where the Unity March ended its short stroll. There, officers, including Smith, made themselves available for discussions with the public.

That wasn't the last of the protesting Wednesday night, though, as nearly two blocks' worth of people walked from the Plaza to Westport and back, chanting along the way.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City resident Troy Hughes speaks with Police chief Rick Smith about police getting training to diffuse tense situations.

The coalition of local civil rights groups — including the Urban League, More2 and the Kansas City branch of the NAACP — not only want Smith to step down, but also want control of the department to be given back to the city.

The groups said they don’t have confidence in how the department handles fatal shootings of Black men or complaints of excessive use of force. And Gwen Grant of the Urban League said that Smith has allowed officers accused of misconduct or use of excessive force back on the job.

“We do not believe he is committed to reform,” Grant said. “We believe that Chief Smith is more committed to protecting the blue line, the police department, than he is to protecting the community, the people they are supposed to protect and serve.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announces that the department has received a donation that'll allow it to purchase body cameras.

Smith has defended his department, especially its actions when tensions between protesters and police heat up late in the evenings. He has said officers have shown restraint as they face verbal abuse and have things like water bottles and rocks thrown at them.

The sustained protests in Kansas City — and in the United States and major international cities — all stem from the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. That officer has been charged with second-degree murder, and the other three involved are charged with aiding and abetting murder.

But the protests also are drawing attention to police violence across the country, like in Louisville, Kentucky, where EMS worker Breonna Taylor died after police shot her several times. In Kansas City, some have pointed to the March fatal shooting of Donnie Sanders, who was unarmed.

Demonstrators are also calling for the end of racist policing tactics and aggressive policing tactics, the latter at times being broadcast and posted on social media across the country in the last week.

For years, activists in Kansas City have pressed for changes to the police department after Ryan Stokes was shot and killed in 2013 outside the Power and Light District. At the time, the Kansas City Police Department said Stokes had tried to steal another man’s phone, was armed and refused to drop his weapon. A KCUR investigation revealed that Stokes hadn’t stolen the phone, was unarmed and was surrendering.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Sharkey Phillips joined the Unity March, which began near the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and made the short journey to Mill Creek Park.

Kansas City’s police chief said this week that some of the things protesters are demanding are already in place.

“People said they wanted accountability,” Smith said. “Everyone wants things to change, but we already have independent reviews. We already have an independent office that handles police complaints. Some of these things I don't know if people aren't aware of them.”

The body cameras will see a "quick and timely implementation," according to a KCPD news release about the donation. The Kansas City-based DeBruce Foundation put in $1 million, and other organizations pitched in with the rest.

But Elliott Yoakum, 22, of Liberty, said he was not impressed with the news about body cameras.

“Because a body camera or different training isn’t a systemic change, or changing the system," Yoakum said. "It’s just changing how the system runs.”

Chris Hooker, a pastor in Kansas City, Missouri, said he loved the idea of body cameras but wanted strict rules for their use.

"It should most definitely be pushed that they stay on during a stop or during an arrest, holding the police officers accountable," Hooker said.

The civil rights groups are also calling for Kansas City to regain its control over the police department; it is the only major city in the United States where the mayor doesn’t have direct control. The state of Missouri does, and has since the 1930s, and there are only two ways to get control back: the Legislature must grant it or voters statewide must decide.

Lora McDonald of More2, one of the groups pushing for local control of the police department, said “the people we can't unseat a governor in Jefferson City.”

There's nowhere for us to escalate to while the police are escalating on protesters,” she added.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas walks with community members during a June 3 Unity March.

Lucas brought up de-escalation at the rally Wednesday, saying it wasn’t just about “de-escalating a protest. It’s about de-escalating every experience and interaction that so many of our community, particularly our black brothers and sisters, are terrified of each day.”

Lucas is one of five members of the Board of Police Commissioners, which has an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss how the Kansas City Police Department has handled the protests — both when peaceful and during times of unrest. Police have made more than 200 arrests since Friday.

Tuesday night’s demonstrations were notable for their relative calm. Police vowed to de-escalate their tactics and didn’t deploy tear gas or pepper spray, a change from the previous nights. Officers also were generally less combative and, at times, struck up conversations with protesters.

The department tweeted Wednesday afternoon that potential civil rights violations by officers are being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, the FBI and the Jackson County prosecutor. “You’ve asked us to be better,” the department tweeted. “We are making steps to do so.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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