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Civil Rights Groups Call For U.S. Justice Department Investigation Of Kansas City Police

Police stand along Mill Creek Parkway during the May protests in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Police form a line along Mill Creek Parkway during the May 2020 protests in Kansas City.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wrote a letter of support, saying police have “no accountability to our community.”

A coalition of civil rights groups on Monday called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department for a high rate of violence against Black and Latino people, racist hiring practices and the department's lack of local control.

In a 15-page letter, groups including the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference–KC asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to “investigate the disturbing patterns of misconduct, discrimination, and unconstitutional patterns and practices of violent policing targeting communities of color.”

“Kansas City has experienced a consistent pattern of systemic violations including police-involved shootings with no accountability, biased and unreasonable searches and seizures, arrests without warrants, and abusive practices by plainclothes units,” the letter reads.

The letter names seven cases of deadly force, including those of Ryan Stokes, who was fatally shot in the back by a KCPD officer in 2013; Cameron Lamb, who was killed by plainclothes officers in 2019; and Donnie Sanders, who was shot during a traffic stop in 2020. The letter also names five cases of serious bodily injury, five of excessive force and one of false arrest.

The group also points to the lack of local control of the KCPD, which is overseen by a Board of Police Commissioners that is appointed by Missouri's governor. Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Kansas City Urban League, said her group’s 2019 police accountability task force found a number of civil rights violations and discriminatory practices targeting the Black community.

“As such, there exists a lack of accountability on the part of KCPD and no opportunity for redress because we do not have local control,” Grant said. “Therefore, our only recourse of action is to come together to seek a DOJ investigation into the KCPD.”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Bakerwrote a letter of support for the group. KCPD has lost the community’s trust that excessive force by its officers will be “rooted out and stopped,” she said.

“I find myself at this historic moment in time where five police officers, I think, maybe six have been charged with crimes for excessive force within this department,” she told KCUR. “Then I have police leadership that's very openly antagonistic about that legal process.”

KCPD issued a statement saying it takes seriously the quality of its relationships and respect within the community.

“We have mechanisms in place to ensure that members can report any incident of discrimination or racism anonymously and we take every incident of reported racism very seriously and investigate fully whether it involves department members or the members of the community,” the statement said.

The police department said that since 2015 it has cooperated with federal officials under a memo of understanding on civil rights and excessive force with the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and the local prosecutor’s office.

Countering a long-time criticism of Baker’s that the department refuses to cooperate during criminal investigations of members of the police department, the KCPD statement said it has always voluntarily submitted investigative documents when investigators “believe a crime has been committed.”

Baker said she worries about the weekly protests that have continued this summer after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, when police took violent action.

“I’m very worried about the spark, the one spark that becomes the igniting moment in Kansas City where the streets sort of erupt,” she said. “Once the streets erupt, then you’re in some serious trouble.”

Other members of the coalition calling for the federal investigation include the NAACP, the National Black United Front-KC, Urban Summit and MORE2.

Groups supporting the effort include Ad Hoc Group Against Crime; BLAQUE-KC; The Committee to Abolish Poverty Inc.; El Centro; JCRB/AJC Kansas City; Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity; Presbyterian Urban and Immigrant Ministry Network of Heartland Presbytery; and Spirit of Freedom Fountain Inc.

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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