Black KCPD detective punished for reporting illegal search by officer, lawsuit says

·6 min read
Shane Keyser/File photo

A Kansas City narcotics detective alleges in a civil lawsuit that he witnessed misconduct by a fellow officer and was punished with a demotion for reporting the incident to superiors.

Until six months ago, Arthur Willingham, 52, was a member of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Kansas City Interdiction Task Force. As he was working in that role, he reported seeing another KCPD detective perform an illegal search of a bag at a Greyhound bus station in Kansas City last October.

The other detective, whose identity is not disclosed in court documents, received no reprimand as far as Willingham is aware, according to the lawsuit. Instead, Willingham says he was called into his captain’s office where he was demoted and accused of violating a KCPD personnel privacy policy by reporting what he saw to his unit chief and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“They took away all my DEA credentials, KCPD laptop, and assigned vehicle, and escorted me out of the building. The experience was degrading and embarrassing and I felt like a criminal,” Willingham, 52, wrote in a letter to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights last month.

“I was treated much differently than the detective that committed the constitutional violation.”

The lawsuit, filed late last week in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleges the department violated Missouri’s Whistleblower’s Protection Act by administratively reassigning Willingham. It also alleges race-based discrimination as Willingham, who is Black, says he was on the receiving end of a “pattern and practice of (KCPD) taking discriminatory actions directed at African-American officers.”

Named as defendants are members of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, the five-member panel appointed by the governor — with the exception of the elected mayor — that oversees KCPD.

The police department said Friday that it does not generally comment on details of pending litigation, but that it is committed to ensuring a fair and equitable workplace.

In regard to investigative requirements, the department said in a statement, “We are very familiar with the requirements of the 4th amendment and have several layers of supervisory accountability and review within our department and as part of the investigative partnership with our federal partners.”

Bus stop search

Kansas City’s Greyhound Bus Terminal at 1101 Troost Avenue is frequently monitored by local and federal law enforcement, often with the assistance of drug-sniffing dogs, as the hub is known to authorities as a passthrough for large quantities of narcotics. Cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin and currency suspected of being fruits of the drug trade have been seized by law enforcement there.

On Oct. 5, Willingham was working at the terminal as part of the joint federal task force he had been assigned to since February 2019. A K-9 unit alerted detectives to two suitcases in the luggage compartment of a bus, but no drugs were found after police searched those bags with the consent of the owners, according to the lawsuit.

As they were putting the luggage back, Willingham says he saw another detective lean into the luggage compartment and unzip a separate duffel bag for which authorities had not received consent to search. He also witnessed that detective feeling around for contents inside the bag, the lawsuit says.

“Upon observing the illegal search, Plaintiff questioned his fellow detective about the illegal search, to which he replied what Plaintiff observed, ‘was not what he usually does,’” the lawsuit says. “Pursuant to KCPD’s policy, Plaintiff immediately informed his Sergeant and prepared a memorandum describing the illegal behavior that he witnessed.”

As a task force officer working with the DEA, Willingham submitted federal cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for review. That includes a required submission of any information to federal prosecutors that may be used by a criminal defendant as part of a constitutional right to due process.

In the October case, Willingham submitted a file to federal prosecutors on Jan. 11, which included his observations, and alerted a narcotics unit chief of “critical information about one of the detectives that he should be aware of,” court papers say.

On Jan. 31, Willingham says he learned the U.S. Attorney’s Office was declining to take that case. His unit supervisor also called his direct supervisor that day, according to court papers.

Four days later Willingham was called into the office with his captain and direct supervisor. He says he was told that he was being administratively transferred from the Investigations Bureau to the Patrol Bureau — a job he has not held for 16 years — as they performed an investigation of his conduct.

Allegations made against Willingham, according to court papers, included an accusation that he violated a KCPD policy of participating in “conduct that might compromise the integrity and thus undercut the public confidence.” He was also accused of violating a department policy concerning the release of personnel information.

Further, Willingham alleges an internal document prepared by his direct supervisor about the episode was “full of inaccuracies.” He also alleges that the other detective avoided any sort of discipline, was never reassigned and that “this was not the first time concerns about this detective had been made to the chain of command.”

“A past detective in the unit left the Department because he relayed concerns and absolutely nothing was done about them,” Willingham wrote in his complaint letter, a sworn testimony made under the penalty of perjury.

‘Purely punitive and retaliatory’

Prior to being put back on patrol, Willingham says he was the recipient of good performance reviews since he joined in 2000. He previously worked in the department’s Narcotics and Vice Division and as an undercover detective.

As a KCPD detective, Willingham received accolades that included 20 letters of commendation and helped achieve other recognition, including the 2016 Missouri Narcotics Officers Association Unit of the Year, according to court papers.

In his complaint, Willingham said the reason behind his reassignment was racial discrimination as part of an observed pattern where Black officers are mistreated.

“The true reason for the KCPD’s unfair treatment of me in the terms and conditions of my employment is because of my race and color, and in retaliation for reporting illegal activity,” Willingham wrote, adding: “This treatment was purely punitive and retaliatory and an effort to force me out of the Police Department.”

The police department said Friday that Willingham is a detective in the Investigations Bureau.

In March, The Star published a series of stories highlighting the experiences of Black KCPD officers and found the department was filled with examples of rampant racism.

Among the findings from the newspaper’s yearlong investigation were that the number of Black officers dropped compared to decades ago, Black officers were disproportionately disciplined by KCPD, and at least 18 officers had left the department because of racist treatment over a 15-year period.

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice and Luke Nozicka contributed to this report.