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Kansas City Police Officer Indicted In Arrest After Black Teen Pleaded 'I Can't Breathe'

Lucas Cuni-Mertz
KCUR 89.3
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced felony assault charges against the Kansas City Police officer late Friday. “The victim can be heard saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’" she said. "Those, I realize, are now pretty infamous words..”

A Kansas City police officer was indicted Friday for excessive force against a Black 15-year-old who pleaded “I can’t breathe” as the officer pushed the teen’s head into the pavement.

Sgt. Matthew Neal, 40, was charged with felony 3rd degree assault in the arrest of the teenager in November of last year in an incident Jackson Country Prosecutor Jean Peters said “disturbed” her.

The teen, who Baker said was unarmed and complying with officers, was face down on the parking lot concrete when Neal put his knee on the back of his head and neck in what’s called a “knee strike.”

“The victim can be heard saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Those, I realize, are now pretty infamous words,” Baker said.

Neal is an 18-year veteran of the department assigned to the Patrol Bureau, according to a statement from Chief Rick Smith. Neal has been on administrative leave following an internal investigation, “and he will continue to be until the outcome of the proceedings,” Smith said.

The Kansas City teen’s plea of “I can’t breathe” echoes the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement this spring and summer after the killing of George Floyd in May. But Neal’s case was triggered by a November 14, 2019, arrest – which Baker said she didn’t learn about until this spring when the teen’s attorney contacted her.

Smith issued a statement after Baker’s late afternoon press conference, saying it’s his responsibility to ensure such incidents are properly investigated. He said he first became aware of the incident following a complaint filed with the Office of Community Complaints in the Internal Affairs Unit.

082120_lcm_baker handout.jpg
Jackson County Prosecutor's Office
The 15-year-old who was allegedly injured by a Kansas City Police officer when he was face-down on the pavement suffered broken teeth and a gash to the head, according to Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

The case stemmed from an arrest triggered when Neal and another officer became suspicious of the teen, a passenger in a car driven by another young man, was spotted at a 7-Eleven near 89th and Wornall. They were suspected of shoplifting, according to the indictment.

Police stopped the vehicle in the parking lot of Go Chicken Go near 52nd and Troost by UMKC’s Volker Campus. The victim, who was unarmed, had his face forced into the pavement, breaking multiple front teeth and suffering a two-inch gash across his head, the indictment said.

Visibly angry about not being informed of the incident, Baker said witnesses and audio showed the juvenile was complying with the officer and didn’t have a weapon. Baker called for the establishment of an independent system for reporting and reviewing all excessive force incidents in a timely manner.

“It should not be a provocative statement to say that we expect better,” Baker said.

News of the charges were met with renewed anger by members of the community who have already called for Smith to be fired.

“We reiterate our call for Chief Smith’s resignation or firing. This is one more reason why,” read a Tweet by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.

Lucas Cuni-Mertz is a news intern at KCUR 89.3.
I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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