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Kansas City groups say Justice Department needs to investigate racism inside KCPD

A man in a dark suit talks at a microphone, Behind him stand two women listening.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Rev. Scott Myers with the Presbyterian Urban and Immigration Ministry Network, calls for local control of the Kansas City Police Department during a press conference at the offices of the Urban League on Wednesday.

Community activists gathered Wednesday to call for local control of the KCPD and for the Board of Police Commissioners to respond to a new Kansas City Star investigation into racism and discrimination within the department.

Community organizations are once again calling for a federal civil rights investigation into the Kansas City Police, in response to reporting from the Kansas City Star that uncovered a pattern of discrimination and racist abuse toward Black officers.

“This has spanned several years, but it became more of a problem,” says Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, at a press conference Wednesday. “The problem was exacerbated starting in 2017 under Rick Smith’s leadership.”

Rick Smith, the current chief of Kansas City Police, announced last Friday that he would retire at the end of April. Smith's nearly five years in the position were marked by controversies over police shootings and the department's much-criticized response to Black Lives Matter protests, and activists have long demanded Smith be fired.

In July 2021, a coalition of local civil rights groups asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a “pattern and practice” investigation into Kansas City Police over its high rates of violence against Black and Latino residents and racist hiring practices.

The groups reiterated that call at Wednesday’s press conference, and urged the public to actively push for local control of the KCPD, which is currently overseen by a state-controlled Board of Police Commissioners.

Grant says they are disappointed the police board has failed to respond to the Star report.

“One would think that at some point they would make a statement, at least saying that the report was unsettling, that they do not support racism and discrimination in any form,” Grant says.

The Star’s investigation, published over the weekend, found that Black officers in the KCPD face overt racism, discrimination, and unequal opportunity for promotion.

The reporting — which resulted from interviews with 25 current and former officers — also highlights how Black officers are “papered out” — receiving unequal disciplinary action that ultimately drives them to leave the department.

“If the Board of Police Commissioners wants to be anything other than a board of police cheerleaders, they need to take action now,” says Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2.

McDonald says the police who are acting as whistleblowers are putting their lives at risk.

“This isn’t shocking to any of us who work in this field,” McDonald says. “This is not new. What’s new is their courage.”

McDonald also said more diversity is needed within the board of commissioners.

“We have overrepresentation from white people,” she says. “Particularly white people who live near the Plaza and Brookside and underrepresentation from Black and brown people.”

Rev. Scott Myers, of the Presbyterian Urban and Immigration Ministry Network, says that because the KCPD is not locally controlled, their only option for redress depends on action from the federal government.

“Until we get that control, we'll be continuing to have these types of challenges,” he says. “The only other avenue is the DOJ.”

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