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The police killing of Amaree’ya Henderson is a major test for Kansas City, Kansas leaders

A woman wearing a pink suit reaches with her left hand to hold in a consoling manner the arm of a woman talking at a podium. Another woman behind her is also patting the back of the woman at the podium.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Pauletta Johnson being consoled by the family members and their attorney, Kay Harper Williams (left), while she spoke at the Call for Justice Rally for her son, 25-year-old Amaree'ya Henderson. His family says he was unarmed when he was killed by Kansas City Kansas Police during a traffic stop on April 26.

KCK’s chief of police and the county district attorney are Black men. After years of police corruption, residents are hopeful — but worried — about how they'll handle a fatal police shooting.

LaDora Lattimore spent 40 years running a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City, Kansas, and even longer being involved in what she calls the “unrest” in the Black community.

She’s now chairing the Law Enforcement Advisory Board, a citizen review panel, and last week held a meeting when the public — for the first time in anyone’s memory — directly asked top law enforcement about the shooting of a 25-year-old Black man by a KCKPD officer.

In a departure from the past, the April 26 fatal shooting of Amaree’ya Henderson was investigated by the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, an outside agency — albeit one just across the river. Lattimore said she was happy to see that “the police are not policing themselves.”

“I've seen, over the years, total police corruption,” Lattimore said. “But that don't mean that every police officer was corrupt, because I can tell you some great stories. But the fact of the matter is, it warms the heart of a community to know that you are not policing yourselves.”

Police Chief Karl Oakman is the second Black chief in KCK history (the first served for just a year in 1970), and Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree is the first Black prosecutor in Kansas. Both must decide how to proceed with the Henderson investigation — what they will disclose to Henderson’s family and whether any charges will be brought against the officer.

People in KCK are wondering whether, now that two Black men are leading local law enforcement, the decades of corruption in the KCK Police Department documented by the FBI and in new federal charges against former Detective Roger Golubski will come to an end.

Henderson was stopped after his last DoorDash delivery of the evening near the 12th Street Bridge that crosses the Kansas River in the Argentine neighborhood. KCPD said a “confrontation” arose and the unnamed officer shot Henderson.

The family says Henderson was unarmed and riding with his girlfriend in the passenger seat — and that he was so scared he called his mother on FaceTime during the incident.

“He was a great human being and an awesome son. It's never been a day in his 25 years of life that he has disappointed me and he has always put family first,” his mother Pauletta Johnson said at a Thursday evening rally while holding back tears.

"What was taken away from me was my only son that I can never get back. I'm scared and I feel like I'm about to fall apart,” she said.

Oakman said Wednesday that he will release redacted body- and dash-camera footage of the shooting to the Henderson family, which they have requested. Dupree, who says he just received the results of the KCPD investigation on Wednesday, has said he can’t discuss the probe.

But Dupree promised those at the Law Enforcement Advisory Board meeting that he does not have a “blind eye” about the race factor and that it was a central reason he chose to run for district attorney. Even though he, too, must be mindful while driving for fear of a police stop, he said he will follow the law “accordingly.”

“At the end of this, we have an ethical obligation to the citizens of this county, despite emotions, despite my color, despite how I feel, and despite who the victim may or may not be,” Dupree said. “We must do what is right by all citizens.”

While the Henderson family and the many social justice activists working on their behalf wait, some in the community say they don’t trust that local law enforcement will make the right decision. Many, like David Grummon, a KCK defense attorney and member of the social justice group MORE2, continue to call for a full investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“We do not have to live in a community where our only two options are a police force that is deeply flawed and not trusted by the community and we're arming ourselves to the teeth so that we can use violence either before or after someone else uses violence against us,” Grummon said.

“We don't have to live like this,” he said. “We can change.”

A man wearing a white shirt stands at a podium outdoors. He is gesturing with his right hand and talking while other people are gathered nearby listening and watching.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
David J. Grummon of MORE2 flanked to the his right by the Henderson family as he spoke at the Call For Justice rally for 25-year-old Amaree'ya Henderson on Thursday, May 11, in front of the Wyandotte County Unified Government Building. Henderson was unarmed when killed by a Kansas City, Kansas Police Officer last month.

The four main questions in the Henderson shooting are:

1.) Will the family see the body- and dash-camera video?

Kay Harper Williams, the Henderson family's lawyer, confronted Oakman about the video during last week’s public meeting. Oakman said that state law allows him 20 days from the time of the family’s request to release it. KCKPD spokeswoman Nancy Chartrand said the Unified Government received the request on May 8 and that the department received it on May 10, which puts their deadline at the end of the month.

Oakman added that the video could be redacted, meaning significant pieces could be removed. Chartrand said such redactions are “a matter of standard practice” and that it could include things like radio transmissions, witness faces and personal information.

It’s still unclear why police stopped Henderson in the first place, but the family said it could’ve been for expired tags on his license plate.

Williams also wondered why the name of the officer hadn’t been released.

“You guys call it officer-involved shooting,” she said. “I call it officers shooting citizens.”

2.) Was Henderson’s girlfriend interviewed?

Henderson’s girlfriend, Shakira Hill, was with him when police stopped, then shot and killed him. The family’s other attorney, Nuru Witherspoon, said it’s his understanding that Hill was not interviewed as part of the investigation.

“I don't know how an investigation or officer-involved shooting can be complete when the passenger wasn't even communicated with,” he said.

On Friday, KCPD spokesman Sgt. Jake Becchina declined to answer questions about the case, citing an ongoing investigation.

Witherspoon said the family plans to file a lawsuit against the police department.

3.) Did the KCK officer follow the department’s use-of-force policy?

The family’s attorney says the officer violated the policy that says an officer may not reach into a vehicle and attempt to remove a person. The family says Henderson was waiting for his mother to arrive before he got out of his car.

“So clearly there was not a de-escalation from a young boy that says, ‘I'm afraid,’” Witherspoon said. “How does someone being stopped for a minor infraction, an expired tag, result in a homicide by a man who said he's afraid and he just wants his mother to show up because that's how afraid he is?"

The KCKPD’suse of force policy is called “8 Can’t Wait,” a national program created in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis Police. The policy calls for a ban on chokeholds, requires de-escalation, requires a warning before deadly force is used, bans shooting at moving vehicles and requires exhausting all alternatives before the use of deadly force.

4.) Why was the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department asked to investigate the shooting?

KCPD investigates any use of force incidents by KCKPD as part of an agreement struck between the two agencies. Most recently, KCPD looked into an April incident in which three officers and three suspects were injured at a KCK convenience store shooting.

Dupree said the KCK Police always did their own investigations into shootings involving officers until seven years ago, when he told the department that he wouldn't accept that. After several years of fighting with the previous administration, Dupree said the KCKPD entered into an agreement with the Topeka Police Department to do the probes, but that ended after a few years.

When Oakman became chief in May 2021, he said KCKPD was still doing its own investigations into officer-involved shootings, which violates current best practices. He said he’s asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to do them, but was told they don’t have the resources. The department signed an agreement with KCPD because that agency had the resources and could get to any scene within 15 to 20 minutes, he said.

Several people at last week’s meeting said they didn’t trust KCPD to do the investigation, especially since Oakman spent nearly 30 years there.

“That would seem as if there's a conflict of interest since that is his former employer,” said Nikki Richardson, who is a member of the Law Enforcement Advisory Board.

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.
As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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