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Despite Years Of Study, Kansas City Police Department Still Doesn't Have A Body Camera Policy

A Kansas City Police officer stands watch during the May 30 BLM protests at Mill Creek Park.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
A Kansas City Police officer stands watch during the May 30 Black Lives Matter protests at Mill Creek Park on the Country Club Plaza, which later turned violent.

After Chief Rick Smith made his report to the Board of Police Commissioners Tuesday, City Councilmember Eric Bunch called for the chief’s resignation or firing. “Enough is enough,” Bunch wrote on Twitter.

The Kansas City Police Department is still working out details of putting body cameras on its officers, leaving some city officials and anti-violence advocates wondering if the cameras and other reforms will ever happen.

As Chief Rick Smith defended his plan before the Board of Police Commissioners Tuesday, Councilman Eric Bunch joined those already calling for Smith’s job.

The department has been talking about body cameras for years, dating back to former Chief Darryl Forte’s tenure, and tested them in 2016. The department announced in June that a private donor had stepped up to pay the costs. The department promised that the cameras would be in hand at the end of 2020 and ready to go in early 2021.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields told the Board of Police Commissioners that a group studying the issue had proposed keeping the digital tapes for just 30 days, which she said is “woefully inadequate.”

“I think we all want body cameras because we think that it will increase public confidence in the police, that they’re doing their jobs and there’s a record of how they’re doing their jobs,” she said.

Smith said retaining and storing the files is expensive, and the study group is considering keeping them for 120 to 180 days. He said “nothing’s been hardened yet in policy” and that a draft proposal will be ready sometime during the next two months.

That lead to Bunch’s call on Twitter.

“The city has received multiple grants to purchase body cameras yet Chief Smith is still ‘looking into it,’” Bunch wrote. “Also, Smith has done virtually nothing to implement Mayor Lucas’s public safety reform initiatives.”

The Board of Police Commissioners approved a small set of reforms sought by Mayor Quinton Lucas last June, including more stringent guidelines on officer-involved shootings.

The department fired back at Bunch on Twitter, telling him that "body cameras already have been deployed in two patrol divisions, and we hope to have all patrol officers outfitted by spring."

News that Smith was still working on details of the body cameras wasn’t a surprise to Stacy Shaw, a Kansas City attorney and one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

She said she doesn’t believe the police board will hold Smith’s feet to the fire, adding that the board ignored 37 weeks of sustained protests and 21 days of protestors being camped out on the City Hall lawns in front of police headquarters.

“The Board of Police Commissioners does not have any interest in reform at all,” Shaw said. “There have been countless protests and there has been no significant movement.”

She called Bunch’s statement “a good gesture,” adding that he’s been outspoken about the police department’s budget, but she was still pessimistic.

“It think this is increasing pressure, but I don’t think they’re (board members) going to do anything,” Shaw said.

Smith also defended his department’s response to the record number of homicides in the city last year — 176. But, he said, the department is working hard to “drive down the violent crime,” and pointed to the a homicide case clearance rate of 73 percent, which he credited to federal assistance, new technology, and community members who talked to police.

“I think that’s amazing given the workload that our homicide unit was under this year,” he said.

But Bunch wasn’t having it.

“Homicides are at an all-time high and officer brutality is common under Smith’s leadership,” he wrote on Twitter. “Enough is enough, Chief Smith should resign or be fired.”

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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