Kansas City Police Chief Defends Handling Of Protests But Pledges Reforms
Smith assured the board his department will conduct a thorough “after action” review of the protests and how they can be better handled in the future.
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith offered a vigorous defense Tuesday of his officers’ handling of recent protests but also pledged to keep working on reforms to address community grievances.
Smith’s comments came during the first public police board meeting since police deployed tear gas and some projectiles during several volatile nights of protests over police brutality in late May. The board met by teleconference because of COVID-19 precautions, and the public was able to listen in but not participate.
His presentation also followed an emergency June 4 closed police board meeting in which the police commissioners called for independent review of officer-involved shootings and excessive use of force complaints, and other strategies to improve police/community relations.
“We very much wanted a peaceful demonstration,” Smith told the board Tuesday, insisting his officers only resorted to pepper spray and tear gas on May 30 and May 31 after those demonstrations turned violent and destructive in and near the Country Club Plaza. The Kansas City protests took place on a long weekend of Black Lives Matter demonstrations nationwide, following the Memorial Day killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, while under arrest in Minneapolis.
“I want the board to know the gas was used as a way to disperse the crowd and to try and prevent more property damage and more injury,” Smith said.
Still, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who sits on the police board, and board member Mark Tolbert said they want a continued police emphasis on de-escalation and a clearer policy to use tear gas only rarely during future 1st Amendment protests.
Tolbert said he attended part of the protests and heard from young people who were very upset with police behavior. Some videos have shown officers directing gas or pepper spray directly at protesters, although Smith said this was only done after the crowd ignored clear verbal warnings to disperse.
“There were some antagonizing moments that I felt our troops could’ve used a little more restraint and understood the frustration that’s going through the crowd,” Tolbert said. “It almost looked like both sides were already antagonized and it was just, who’s going to blow first?”
Tolbert told Smith, “I didn’t see enough de-escalation strategy.”
Smith responded that his officers used a hands-off approach with the demonstrations Friday May 29 but resorted to more aggressive tactics May 30 and May 31 because they were getting pelted with rocks, glass bottles and frozen water bottles and threatened with other dangerous activity. He said peaceful protesters in the crowd were also injured and at risk, and fires were set that the Fire Department couldn’t get to until the crowds were compelled to disband.
Lucas also questioned the use of beanbag projectiles, which Smith said were only used after police were actively getting assaulted.
Smith assured the board his department will conduct a thorough “after action” review of the protests and how they can be better handled in the future. He said more recent demonstrations were peaceful and constructive. But he also expressed dismay that some protesters were so antagonistic toward officers.
“The men and women are trying to keep control of a crowd that’s obviously anti-police, and I don’t understand all of that,” he said, adding that his officers are also appalled at George Floyd’s killing.
Smith said that while police activity during the protests has captured the public’s attention, it doesn’t show the countless ways police positively serve the public, including with social workers and youth police initiatives.
“This department is very invested in the community,” Smith said. “The majority of our time is spent helping, not enforcing.”
Floyd died after he was under a chokehold by a Minneapolis police officer for more than eight minutes. Tuesday’s board meeting featured a presentation about how Kansas City has a clear set of police policies governing the use of force.
Maj. Greg Dull said the department already endorses most of the recommendations of the 8CantWait grassroots campaign to transform police departments. Dull said the Kansas City police department doesn’t specifically ban chokeholds but doesn’t use them.
Instead, he said officers are trained in “lateral vascular neck restraint,” which doesn’t constrict the airway and allows officers to safely subdue someone resisting arrest.
He said that since 2017, it’s been used 84 times in Kansas City, with no issues or injuries.
Still, Tolbert and Lucas said they want a firm ban on chokeholds.
“We can do that,” Dull said.
He also said the department has specific guidelines and training to de-escalate other types of dangerous situations. It requires warnings before shootings unless there’s an imminent threat, strongly recommends against shooting at vehicles, and directs officers to intervene and report incidents of excessive force to a superior.
While the board didn’t hear directly from the public, it received 268 emailed comments, many relating to the recent protests. Of those, 54 demanded a ban on chokeholds, strangleholds and knee holds; 66 supported the 8CantWait campaign; 41 called for the termination of Chief Smith; and 41 called for defunding the police. Three comments praised police professionalism and four urged support for body cameras.
The board did not specifically respond to the emails.
A program to provide police body cameras has now been funded through donations, and presenters to the board said the department is in the process of acquiring that equipment, although no timetable was provided.
Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley