Jackson County Prosecutor will no longer look at race when deciding whether to file charges
For months, members of the Black community in Kansas City have shared accounts of missing women, and complained about police dismissing their concerns. In response, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says her office will implement a "race-blind" charging system.
In part because of community concerns surrounding missing Black women in Kansas City, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has announced it will mask the race of both suspects and victims on documents that prosecutors review to decide whether to file charges.
“Bias occurs everywhere. It doesn’t go just in one direction,” county Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told The Beacon.
The new policy follows questions about whether concerns for the safety of vulnerable Black women are treated seriously enough. The issue reached a peak last fall when a 22-year-old Black woman escaped from captivity in Excelsior Springs and reported being abducted from near Prospect Avenue in Kansas City. Only weeks before, police had discounted concerns that a serial killer may be targeting Black women.
Members of the Black community have detailed difficulty with filing police reports on missing persons, and some have accused police of a dismissive attitude toward their concerns. Questions extended beyond Black neighborhoods when police, in separate instances, delayed notifying the public about the disappearances of two teenagers, one white and one Latino. Both were found dead, and police are investigating one of the cases as a homicide.
In response to the concerns, Stacey Graves, Kansas City’s new chief of police, has announced plans to relaunch the department’s missing persons unit, which was disbanded in 2022 by the previous chief, Rick Smith.
The new unit, which will consist of seven detectives and a sergeant supervisor, is one of several planned efforts by the new chief to build trust between the Kansas City Police Department and local communities.
“We have listened to our community’s concern for those who go missing in our city,” Graves said at a recent Board of Police Commissioners meeting. “Bringing back the missing person squad will better serve all people in our city.”
Baker also has gone public recently with changes in her office to respond to concerns about the safety of Black women.
The prosecutor’s office recently uploaded a blog post to discuss the issue.
“Any report of a missing person, someone whose loved ones fear might have been kidnapped or somehow be in danger, immediately raises concerns,” Baker said in the post. “Beyond that, our community must have a basic trust in the criminal justice system. Without that, things fall apart.”
Going forward, Baker said, her office will use a “race-blind” charging system. When prosecutors decide whether to file charges in a case, they will not initially be told the race of either the suspect or the victim.
The new approach will be studied through a collaboration with Stanford University’s Computational Policy Lab. The lab has designed an algorithm that redacts race-identifying information from case narratives. It will monitor Jackson County data to determine the prosecutor’s office’s level of bias and recommend solutions.
“I want to give all these prosecutors here as many tools in their toolbox so that they don’t overlook something important and that they are being trained in the best way possible,” Baker said.
Race-blind charging is a relatively new approach for prosecutors. So far, it has mostly been used in California.
Removing race from the charging process
The prosecutor’s blog post compares local data on Black female homicides to a national report by The Wall Street Journal, which cites that murders of Black women and girls increased dramatically during the pandemic, while the rate of solved cases dropped.
“In 21 U.S. cities …unsolved homicides of Black females had increased 89 percent, comparing 2018-2019 data to 2020-2021,” the blog post says, summarizing The Wall Street Journal story. “All homicides of Black females… had increased 51 percent, comparing 2019 data to 2021.”
In comparison, Baker said, Jackson County recorded 15 homicides with Black female victims in 2019 and 17 in 2021, an increase of 13.3%.
To get a better understanding of the issue, Baker reached out to two community groups that work with vulnerable Black women. “They assured me that while we must remain vigilant, no new or heightened concern existed in this community,” she said.
One of the groups was the Justice Project, a local nonprofit that supports and advocates for women in poverty, particularly those involved in sex work or human trafficking.
“I had heard about missing women, but I hadn’t heard any definitive information like who is missing and their name, details like that,” Kris Wade, founder and executive director of the Justice Project, told The Beacon.
Wade said she was somewhat sidelined by a broken leg in the fall when concerns about missing Black women were peaking. During that time, the number of calls she received from someone looking for a woman or a child was “typical,” she said.
“In the street world somebody is always missing,” Wade said. “Sometimes for a while, sometimes forever.”
The fact that Kansas City didn’t see a steep rise in homicides of Black women during the pandemic, as many cities did, doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done, Baker said.
“All of that is not to underestimate the fact that we know that Black females are more vulnerable,” she said. “We know that poor Black females are even more vulnerable. That’s a truth.”
During the same period in which Black female homicides increased by 13%, the homicide rate for white females decreased by approximately 43%, according to the blog post.
With the new race-blind charging system, Stanford Lab will create an algorithm that scrubs any indication of race in the initial details of a documented crime, except for cases where race is a key element, such as hate crimes.
If a prosecutor decides to file charges in a case based on the details provided, with race excluded, that case will then be analyzed with additional details such as videos and photo lineups.
Additional tools for prosecutors
Baker told The Beacon she is focused on training all her prosecutors about implicit bias and cultural competence.
“If you spend most of your time in particular communities, particular ZIP codes or neighborhoods because that’s where a lot of harm occurs, then it’s really imperative on the prosecutor to make sure that they understand culturally how that community lives and works, what are their norms, what’s important to them, how to best serve them, how to best have this system of justice work for them,” she said.
Taking steps to minimize racial bias should benefit victims and others involved in a case, not just defendants, Baker said.
“I want to look at it much more broadly,” she said. “Do you have bias in how you judge a witness? And what some of those biases might look like. Because if you can learn to identify them, then you maybe learn how to more reasonably review evidence.”
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.