This Kansas City protest group created a new model for police accountability
Friday Night Protest, an activist group that holds weekly demonstrations to honor people killed by the Kansas City Police Department, has taken another step in advocating for police accountability and the victims of police violence.
Every Friday around 6 p.m., as many Kansas Citians rush home from work and begin their weekends, the names of people killed by Kansas City police echo through downtown.
“We wanted these names to just stay alive in everybody's minds,” says Steve Young, who started the somber tradition with his partner, Winifred Jamieson.
The two formed an organization called Friday Night Protest during the 2020 George Floyd protests at the Country Club Plaza. After they took part in several demonstrations, Young and Jamieson had an idea: Why not move the protest to where the problem was?
So, with a handful of other activists, they started gathering every evening outside of police headquarters downtown to recite the names of people killed by the Kansas City Police Department.
“The building around KCPD headquarters, they have cameras all around it, and the cameras have audio,” says Young. “As much as they want to try to forget them, and pretend like they're insignificant, you know, we are keeping those names alive.”
In June 2020, when meeting every night of the week became too much, Young and Jamieson designated Friday as their demonstration day — and the new organization got its name.
“Every Friday they would have to hear us,” Young says, “they would have to hear us say the names.”
Friday Night Protest still happens every week, more than two and a half years later, and long after other demonstrations calling for racial justice lost steam.
“A lot of folks thought that we were just out there … screaming at the police, screaming at the building,” says Young. “They didn't see the things that we were doing behind the scenes, where we were actually forming these relationships with as many of the victims' families as possible.”
Law enforcement investigating law enforcement
In May 2021, police fatally shot a man in Kansas City’s Pendleton Heights neighborhood, close to where Young and Jamieson live. Jamieson says when they went to the scene to see what happened, they saw Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators hugging and laughing with local officers. Since 2020, the Highway Patrol has been tasked with investigating all shootings that involve KCPD officers.
“We cannot rely upon another law enforcement agency investigating another law enforcement agency,” says Jamieson. “We just can’t.”
Jamieson worked as a criminal defense investigator for the Missouri State Public Defender’s office for more than a decade. Through that work, she says, she repeatedly saw police lie and withhold evidence to protect themselves. But seeing first-hand how investigations are carried out at the scene propelled Jamieson and Young to form a new organization: the Kansas City Law Enforcement Accountability Project, better known as KC LEAP.
The group operates separately from Friday Night Protest, and aims to step out of the demonstration realm and into a community-support one by further supporting victims of police brutality and their families. Young, Jamieson, and a team of about six volunteers have raised money for food, shelter and even funeral services. What makes the organization unique is their rapid-response team, which goes to the scene of police shootings and conducts their own investigation.
“When there is a police-involved shooting … we will document what's happening at the scene. We'll actually stay there until, you know, the scene has been cleared, and then afterwards we start our investigation,” says Young. “We'll canvas the area, we'll try to get ahold of any witnesses that we can.”
Sometimes the canvassing takes several days. Volunteers knock on doors and leave business cards during different times of the day in hopes of catching more people at home.
‘A potential model for other cities’
Abdul Nasser Rad, managing director for research and data at Campaign Zero, a national group that pushes for police reform, has never heard of an organization that goes as far as KC LEAP in investigating police brutality. It’s crucial work, he says.
Police in Kansas City killed 47 people between 2013 and June 2022, and nearly half of them were African American, says Rad, who compiles data for the Mapping Police Violence project. Police brutality is not well-documented, historically, and media reports about it often rely heavily on law enforcement narratives.
“But I think it really is just like the next … step, and could be a potential model for other cities (and) local organizations to provide these services,” Rad says, “to make sure that the right information is out there.”
Other than national organizations like the ACLU, Rad is not aware of any other community groups that carry out their own investigations and question the police like KC LEAP. In Kansas City, organizations like the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime provide a host of victim services, including mental health and job preparedness, but Ad Hoc also works as a mediator between the public and law enforcement.
By contrast, KC LEAP draws a clear line between themselves and the police, though Young and Jamieson do have a relationship with the use of force unit within Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.
“And that … is only with express permission from the people that we've talked to,” Jamieson stresses. “We're not the police, and we're not going to give your name to the police. And we're not going to tell the police what we know.”
KC LEAP in action
KC LEAP sprang to action for Kansas City resident Mack Nelson this August. Nelson says he had just witnessed a fatal police shooting outside a gas station on Prospect Avenue, and was waiting inside the station for police to clear the scene. After police told patrons they were free to go, Nelson went outside to film the crime scene. Nelson says he didn’t trust that the highway patrol had conducted a fair investigation because they did not question him or any of the witnesses inside the gas station.
“So I decided to go on Facebook Live and record that,” Nelson says.
“I walked around inside the perimeter for a good — I don't know — eight, nine minutes and, you know, describing it,” he says. “I guess the lady officer heard me and … demanded that I step back behind the tape, and I did exactly that.”
A police report of the incident says an officer asked Nelson to step outside of the white police tape multiple times. Nelson complied, the report states, but when officers walked away, he would step back into the crime scene.
“She just kept on coming towards me aggressively, and I kept on asking her why — why she was doing it,” Nelson says.
KC LEAP was there to record the interaction. Young says police threw Nelson face-down onto the pavement.
Nelson says he blacked out after the interaction, and he has little memory of what occurred afterwards. Nelson says he sustained a deep cut on his head and possibly a concussion. An ambulance took him to a hospital, where he got stitches.
In the aftermath, Nelson faced criminal charges for resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and trespassing. The police report says he refused to leave the hospital and was belligerent toward hospital security.
Nelson ultimately spent 30 days in jail, and is on probation for the charges. During his time behind bars, Nelson lost his job and his vehicle was stolen. Though his memories of the incident were unclear, he tried to reach out to attorneys and the NAACP for help. No one would take his case, he says.
“Since this thing happened, I’ve just been going through so much, and people didn't believe me,” Nelson says. “People didn't believe that what the police did to me was wrong.”
It took more than a month for KC LEAP to track Nelson down — they did not want to release the video without his permission. When he did see the video, Nelson became emotional.
“I actually cried because … that ain't the first time I done been in their custody and felt powerless and scared,” Nelson says. “It's just this time somebody was happening to catch it.”
“I felt less than a man, less than a human being,” he says.
KC LEAP also connected Nelson with a lawyer. His civil case against the officers is ongoing. Four months later, he still can’t feel parts of his face.
His attorney, John Picerno, believes a settlement from Kansas City police is likely, thanks largely to Young’s video. Picerno says it proves police lied on the incident report when they wrote that Nelson “resisted arrest by jerking his arms away and attempting to twist his body away.”
“It doesn't appear that Mr. Nelson is doing anything in terms of waving his arms or trying to twist his body away,” says Picerno. “And certainly the video contradicts the officer's statement in his official police report that (Nelson) fell to the ground. … He didn't fall to the ground, he was body-slammed to the ground — that's clear.”
While Nelson waits for the results of his case, KC LEAP continues to help him make ends meet. Nelson, who has experienced homelessness in recent months, says he can’t imagine his life without their help.
“If it weren’t for a certain organization, I don't know where I'd be at right now,” he says. “They (are) my guardian angel.”
KC LEAP has established a hotline for people to report police brutality. According to their website, the group responds to calls or texts within 72 hours. Call (816) 477-LEAP, or visit KCLEAP.org, for more information.