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Kansas City Council Approves Measure To Drop Charges Against Peaceful Protesters

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Carlos Moreno
/
For KCUR
Police lead a protestor away from a demonstration near the Country Club Plaza on May 30.

The intense meeting also included the introduction of an ordinance that would remove marijuana possession as a violation in the city code.

Non-violent Kansas City protesters who were arrested in late May during demonstrations against police brutality will not be prosecuted, under an ordinance approved Thursday by the Kansas City Council.

Following impassioned debate, the Council voted 9-2 in favor of the measure sponsored by Councilman Brandon Ellington to bar prosecution of non-violent protesters.

“The ordinance allows those individuals that were peacefully protesting not to face charges,” Ellington said.

But that does not prevent charges relating to violent or criminal activity or property damage.

The ordinance stemmed from a long weekend of sometimes chaotic protests that occurred May 29-31 in and near the Country Club Plaza. More than 200 people were arrested, and police deployed tear gas and pepper spray as they struggled to get control of sometimes unruly crowds.

It was one long weekend of turmoil but was followed by nearly two weeks of calmer, constructive marches and gatherings in which police de-escalated and largely remained in the background.

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Julie Denesha
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas looks on as Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith announces plans to provide police with body cams on June 3. On the sixth day of protest, people calling for change in policing and protesting the deaths of black Americans in police custody a large crowd gathered for a unity march with Kansas City police, local pastors and other community leaders.

Ellington insisted he is not anti-police, and told his colleagues Thursday it was important for the council to take this stand to “preserve democracy.”

“We want peaceful demonstrations in our city,” he said. “We want peaceful policing in our city. And we want respect when it comes to our citizens engaging in their constitutionally-protected rights.”

Council members Heather Hall and Teresa Loar were the lone dissenters, arguing the judicial process is fair in Kansas City and should be allowed to play out in this instance.

“I ask for due process to occur,” Hall said in urging her colleagues to vote No. She said intervening in this way was a “slippery slope,” and questioned when the Council will next insert its will into the judicial process.

“Will this become the norm in Kansas City?” she asked. “Are we going to administer all our laws by committee?”

Hall held up a stack of what she said were 736 letters in opposition to the measure, not all from police or their families. She said the police were heroes when they kept the peace during a car chase in the Chiefs' Super Bowl parade, and when they were first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now all of a sudden we’re vilifying them,” she said. “This ordinance supports the political agenda of the protesters involved by intervening in the rights of the people. Those who vote for this are using their office to further a political agenda.”

Councilwoman Andrea Bough said although her husband is a judge, she felt the Council action was justified. She offered an amendment, which the Council approved, to specifically identify the relevant offenses.

Councilman Kevin McManus said the ordinance was narrowly drawn and does not prevent prosecution of people with DUIs, or those involved with assaults or property damage. Instead it itemized violations related to peaceful protesting, such as failure to comply with the mayor’s curfew, loitering, disorderly conduct, crossing the line at a crosswalk, or walking in the street instead of the sidewalk.

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Carlos Moreno
Police guard the perimeter of the Country Club Plaza the morning of May 31, a night after demonstrations in honor of George Floyd turned violent.

In other action Thursday, the Council also approved a resolution, sponsored by Mayor Quinton Lucas and Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, calling on the City Manager to review all city ordinances that have a discriminatory or unduly burdensome impact, and to recommend modifications or repeal.

Lucas says too many of Kansas City’s laws lead to jail rather than citations, and reducing petty offenses and arrests can reduce tense police/community interactions. The timeline for the city manager’s review was not specified.

Also Thursday, an ordinance was introduced to remove marijuana possession as a violation in the city code, which would eliminate any penalty including a fine.

Sponsors of the measure include Lucas and council members Robinson, Brandon Ellington, Lee Barnes and Ryana Parks-Shaw.

“One of the ways we improve police-community relations is by eliminating laws that for too long have led to negative interactions, arrests, convictions, and disproportionate rates of incarceration of Black men and Black women,” Lucas said in a press release. “Reducing petty offenses — such as municipal marijuana offenses — reduce these negative interactions each day.”

The mayor noted that state and federal laws still regulate marijuana and said the city doesn’t need to be in that business. He said decriminalization does not mean halting public health and mental health resources for those dealing with substance abuse, and treatment is a better investment than jail.

The ordinance was referred to a council committee for discussion next week.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black Americans are nearly four times as likely as white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

Kansas City has already reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In 2017, voters approved a measure to eliminate possible jail time and reduce the maximum fine from $500 to $25 for possessing up to 35 grams of pot.

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