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Once Considered Partners, These Religious Leaders Have Lost Faith In Kansas City Police Leadership

Rev. Darron Edwards reacts to the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin during a press conference Tuesday evening near 18th and Vine where local clergy gathered following the trial to address the outcome.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Pastor Darron Edwards, shown here during a press conference near 18th and Vine, said he's lost confidence in Police Chief Rick Smith. Edwards previously helped establish a partnership with police, called Getting to the Heart of the Matter.

A group of African American pastors is distancing themselves from departmental leadership over video they say conflicts with police accounts of the killing of Malcolm Johnson.

When Pastor Darron Edwards helped kick off the 'Getting to the Heart of the Matter' partnership with Kansas City police in August of last year, he hoped to build bridges.

“I wanted to see what bridging the gap could do,” said Edwards, of the United Believers Community Church. “I wanted to see if there was a possibility of establishing trust with three prominent African American pastors.”

Ten months later, and after releasing video they received of officers killing a man named Malcolm Johnson in a gas station in March, those prominent faith leaders said they’ve lost confidence in the leadership of the Kansas City Police Department.

“Building that bridge is possible, but not with the current leadership,” Edwards said.

Edwards and the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, expressed their concern Tuesday on KCUR’s Up To Date. The third in their group is the Rev. Ronald Lindsay, pastor of the Concord Fortress of Hope Church, who joined them last week at a press conference where the killing took place.

KCUR reached out to the police department, which referred the request to the Missouri Highway Patrol. Since 2020, that agency has investigated all shootings involving Kansas City police.

Video of the incident shows a man being pulled to the ground by police after he attempts to flee. During the scuffle on the floor, only the feet of the man and officers are visible. More than a minute later, the video shows four officers leaving the gas station, one of them obviously limping. There are still questions surrounding the officer's injury.

Surveillance Video of Kansas City Police confronting Malcolm Johnson

Additional video of the shooting has emerged, but is similarly inconclusive.

Police said they were pursuing Malcolm Johnson for an aggravated assault and that he drew a gun and fired on officers during the incident.

“Yeah, he does have a past, but even with that past I think things could have been handled differently,” Cleaver said. “The police may have viewed him as a violent person — you still can't act as judge and jury on the streets.”

Cleaver maintained police should have been able to take Johnson into custody without shooting him.

Edwards doubled down on previously characterizing the killing as a police execution.

“When I'm looking at the video, it looks like one officer shot another officer, then shot the victim twice in the head,” Edwards said. “And from the village I come from, anytime you shoot someone in the head, that's execution.”

The video, according to Edwards, also shows no evidence of any attempts by police to deescalate the situation.

“I don't understand how you went from zero to a hundred,” he said. “But one thing that is clear: The policy and the procedures and the processes that we know that the KCPD is supposed to follow were not followed.”

A lack of trust affects investigations

As for why video of the incident was given to their group, and not directly to the police, Cleaver placed the blame squarely on a lack of trust.

“Because of the distrust and lack of confidence that people in the Black community have of KCPD, they didn't know what to do with the video,” he said. “They were afraid.”

“In particular, the community has a real distrust over the leadership of the Kansas City Police Department,” Cleaver said.

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
"Unfortunately we've become so accustomed to police harassment and shootings in the Black community, we sort of shrug it off," said Cleaver, shown here in 2019.

Feeding into that distrust, at least for Edwards, is the fact that some of the officers involved in the incident are still on duty. All the officers should be on administrative leave without pay, he said. “At least.”

During a press conference last week, the faith leaders and Johnson's family demanded that the four officers involved be fired immediately and criminally charged.

If those demands weren’t met, the group members threatened to approach the U.S Department of Justice with the case, in the hopes that a federal agency could audit and drive reform within KCPD.

For now, those demands are on hold.

“We were told the chief is on vacation and so we're waiting on his return to meet our demand,” Edwards told Up To Date.

For now, Cleaver admits the video may not be enough to sway everyone.

“Unless there's something else out there, I think some are going to walk away thinking and believing that the officers were perhaps justified, and others believing that it was not justified for them to shoot Malcolm Johnson,” he said.

The pastors hinted Tuesday at more video of the incident coming to light, but took care not to be seen as anti-police, a balance they have sought to strike over the last week.

“After meeting with (the Highway Patrol) on Wednesday, it's the best shot that we have in term of getting justice,” Edwards said. “We just want safe policing.”

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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