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Kansas City Activists Want More Information On Donnie Sanders Case, But Public Forum May Not Provide Answers

During an October press conference for Deja Stallings, protestors pressed for resolution in several deaths including Donnie Sanders.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
During an October press conference for Deja Stallings, a pregnant woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by Kansas City Police, protestors pressed for resolution in several officer-involved shootings, including that of Donnie Sanders.

The Black Lives Matter social movement has created a sea change in who holds prosecutors accountable and how they publicly handle police excessive force cases.

Kansas City attorney Stacy Shaw surprised a few people Friday when she announced on Twitter that the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office would hold a public meeting about a recent case involving an officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man.

Shaw, who rose to a leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, said Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker's office would be talking about the case of Donnie Sanders, who was killed by a police officer in March 2020. Baker announced last week that she has insufficient evidence to charge the officer.

Turns out, there was a “misunderstanding,” according to Baker’s spokesman, Mike Mansur. The public meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, would not be about a specific case but rather an informational meeting about how the office handles excessive force issues.

Activists seeking more answers in the case look to be disappointed, but the social media showdown is representative of a sea change in how prosecutors are dealing with officer-involved shootings and who holds them accountable.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a Brown University sociologist who studies the cultural impact of racial injustice within criminal courts, said in the past prosecutors feared that appearing soft on crime was political suicide. But the Black Lives Matter movement has increased pressure on prosecutors for public transparency, she said.

“I think what we're seeing now with the rise of Black Lives Matter, as well as increased public accountability, where people are seeing what police misconduct and police violence looks like, that's creating this additional pressure on prosecutors to account for their discretion,” she said. “And that is totally new.”

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Kansas City attorney Stacy Shaw speaks at a press conference in October.

Shaw said the community will keep demanding more answers on the Sanders case.

“I’m personally not going to let them back up from the public being allowed to make them accountable,” she said.

Gonzalez Van Cleve said the spotlight on prosecutorial discretion started happening even before the killing of George Floyd, which triggered last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests across the country. She points back to two elections in 2016. In the first, a Cook County prosecutor lost her bid for a third term after she took a year to bring charges against a police officer in the case of Laquan McDonald, a Chicago teenager who was shot 16 times in 2014.

The same happened to a Cleveland prosecutor who was ousted from his job in 2016 after he was criticized for how he handled an investigation into the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy shot by a white officer.

Then in 2017, progressive candidate Larry Krasner won the prosecutor’s job in Philadelphia, promising a host of police and criminal justice reforms.

“This to me seems to be a promising move within the politics of prosecution,” Gonzalez Van Cleve said. “So I think you might start to see more prosecutors feeling accountable to people's outrage and asking them, having listening sessions, etc.”

“Now, whether they're substantive and actually results in exercising their discretion on behalf of what reformers want, which is police accountability, that probably remains to be seen.”

During Tuesday’s virtual public meeting, Baker will discuss her office’s use of force committee and their procedures for reviewing those cases under the law, Mansur said.

“There’s lots of cases that are raising questions,” he said. “It’s understandable people want to know more about the process.”

If people want more information about the Sanders case, Mansur pointed to the 13-page public letter Baker wrote to the Sanders family. Baker said she had insufficient evidence to charge the officer in the Sanders case.

On Friday, the Kansas City Star reported that the same officer who shot Sanders, 24-year-old Blayne Newton, was involved in the controversial arrest of a pregnant woman last summer. Caught on video, Deja Stallings was thrown to the ground and handcuffed while a Kansas City police officer put his knee on her lower back. Police claimed she was interfering with an arrest.

Shaw represents Stallings, who gave birth to a girl in October. While working with the prosecutor’s office, Shaw said she told them there needs to be a public conversation about the Sanders case, especially since the same officer was involved in both the Sanders and Stallings cases.

“There are a lot of people in Kansas City who are outraged by this (Sanders) decision,” Shaw said.

Although Baker might not want to talk about specific cases on Tuesday, Shaw urged her to bring more transparency to the process of officer-involved shootings.

“I recommend that this is the only system we have for accountability for officers who murder someone,” Shaw said.

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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