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Justice Department opens civil rights investigation into Kansas City Police hiring practices

Four police officers sit in a row of chairs, backs to the camera. In the foreground, the back of a protective vest reads, "police."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Police officers at a meeting of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners in December 2021.

The investigation comes after The Kansas City Star reported earlier this year on allegations of racism and harassment of Black officers in the department.

The Kansas City Police Department said on Monday that the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division is investigating its hiring practices.

A statement by interim Police Chief Joseph Mabin confirmed the investigation, and said the police department would fully cooperate.

“It is the policy and practice of the Board of Police Commissioners and the Kansas City Missouri Police Department to provide a work atmosphere free of actual or perceived discrimination and harassment,” the statement said. “I am committed to ensuring every member experiences a safe and fair work environment and every applicant receives fair treatment throughout the hiring process.”

The investigation comes after The Kansas City Star published a series of storiesearlier this year looking into allegations of racism and harassment in the department. The Star spoke with Black officers who said they were called racial slurs and disproportionately disciplined by their white supervisors.

The Star also found that at least 18 officers left the KCPD because of racist treatment over 15 years. Only 11.6% of the department’s officers are Black.

Following The Star’s investigation, civil rights groups in Kansas City called for the Department of Justice to investigate the police department’s hiring practices.

A letter from the Department of Justice addressed to the Board of Police Commissioners and to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said the investigation was to determine if the KCPD engaged in a “pattern or practice of discrimination based on race” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Our investigation is based on information suggesting that KCPD may be engaged in certain employment practices that discriminate against Black officers and applicants, including those that have a disparate impact based on race, in entry level hiring, promotions and assignments to Detective, in imposing discipline, and by maintaining a hostile work environment,” the letter states.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said on Monday that it’s time for more accountability in the police department.

“Most of our conversations, not just in Kansas City, but in the state of Missouri, have not looked to how we can make sure that our officers, particularly officers of color and women, can be taken care of, have not looked at how we can become a more diverse department reflective of our city,” he said at a news conference at the police department's downtown headquarters. “And I think no matter what becomes of this investigation, it's important for us to take steps and make sure we're doing right by our officers.”

Lucas said the Board of Police Commissioners, the five-member body that governs the KCPD, met Monday morning to discuss the search for a new police chief but did not bring up the DOJ investigation. Lucas said he was frustrated by the board’s silence.

“This department and its board need to be the ones that are launching these types of investigations to make sure we are doing right by our community,” Lucas said. “I think it's fair to say that that has been wanting, and that has been lacking not just for the past several years, but for generations in Kansas City.”

The Urban League of Greater Kansas City was one of several local civil rights groups that called for a DOJ investigation last summer.

“While it is a narrow investigation in terms of looking at patterns and practices with employment, our hope is that this is just the beginning of a deeper dive that will also expand this investigation into patterns and practices of excessive and deadly force,” Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League, said.

Part of the reason federal intervention was needed, she added, is because Kansas City does not have local control over its police department.

“Therefore we do not have local redress for the challenges that we've been facing. And so we made that case with the Department of Justice saying that, but for a federal investigation, but for federal oversight, we will not be able to improve our situation,’” Grant said. “We need them to come in and shine a light on the problems and hold KCPD accountable to address them."

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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