‘Our only recourse’: Civil rights groups call for federal investigation of KCPD

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A consortium of Kansas City civil rights organizations are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, pointing to “disturbing patterns” of officer misconduct and violent policing that targets minorities.

The civil rights groups are organized under the umbrella of The Urban Council, which includes the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, More2, the Kansas City Black United Front and the NAACP’s Kansas City branch.

The leadership of that association will hold a news conference at 10 a.m. this morning on the steps of the Charles Evans Whittaker U.S. Courthouse in downtown Kansas City.

The groups have pointed to a pattern of excessive use of force allegations in the police department, a lack of accountability, and the fatal police shootings of African American men. Local civil rights leaders called for the removal of Police Chief Rick Smith a year ago.

“In communities throughout this country, over-policing puts a target on the backs of Black and Brown people,” Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League said in a news release.

“In cities like Kansas City, Missouri, and too many more, clear patterns and practices of police misconduct and constitutional rights violations have shown themselves to be rooted in a culture of departmental mismanagement, ineffectiveness and lacking public accountability.”

The local Urban League affiliate is partnering with its national organization in seeking a federal civil rights investigation of the Kansas City police department.

Kansas City police Chief Rick Smith waits for an event on “Operation LeGend: Combatting Violent Crime in American Cities,” to begin in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Washington.
Kansas City police Chief Rick Smith waits for an event on “Operation LeGend: Combatting Violent Crime in American Cities,” to begin in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Washington.

Police accountability

Gwen Grant, president/CEO of the Kansas City Urban League, said local activists formed a police accountability task force two years ago to monitor how the police force interacted with the community.

“In 2019, it became clear that there are patterns and practices of numerous civil rights violations, discriminatory practices, and excessive and deadly force on the part of KCPD in the Black community,” Grant said in a written statement.

“As such, there exists a lack of accountability on the part of KCPD and no opportunity for redress because we do not have local control. Therefore, our only recourse of action is to come together to seek a DOJ investigation into the KCPD.”

The group is asking the civil rights division of the Justice Department to investigation their claims.

In its letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the group said in the past year KCPD officers have killed three unarmed Black men and conducted “biased and unreasonable searches and seizures,” and made arrests without warrants. The group also said they lacked of confidence in the Office of Community Complaints, the city office charged with investigating complaints against police.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wrote a letter in support of the effort, saying the groups are greatly troubled by deepening mistrust between police and the community.

“Kansas City’s police department suffers from many problems identified in cities now in turmoil about their police force,”’ Baker wrote. “It has no accountability to our community; it has lost the community’s confidence that excessive force will be rooted out and stopped; and the harm from all of this falls in greatest portion on the city’s minority community.”

Other groups wrote letters in support included the AdHoc Group Against Crime, El Centro, Jewish Community Relations Bureau/AJC Kansas City, More2, BLAQUE-KC, The Committee to Abolish Poverty, Inc. Presbyterian Urban and Immigrant Ministry Network of Heartland Presbytery and Spirit of Freedom Fountain, Inc.

Past investigations

Currently, five officers are under indictment for excessive force, including manslaughter and assault. A number of officers are under active investigations, according to the group’s letter.

Local leaders have been critical of the handling of specific police shooting deaths of Black men, including Ryan Stokes, Terrance Bridges, Cameron Lamb and Donnie Sanders.

Recently, local activists have called for local control of the police force. Kansas City remains one of the few major cities in United States whose police department is controlled by the state. Four members of the police board are appointed by the governor.

The police board will hold it’s monthly meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday at the downtown police headquarters.

The Urban League and its partners said Smith has refused to provide a statement of probable cause to Jackson County prosecutors investigating two officers accused of assaulting a transgender woman.

They also pointed to rising violent crime, unsolved homicides and low arrest rates.

In April, the Justice Department announced it had initiated an investigation into whether the Minneapolis Police Department engaged in a “pattern and practice” of illegal conduct that included whether officers used excessive force during protests.

The Justice Department conducted a similar investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in 2015 and found that officers unfairly targeted Black residents, arrested people without probable cause, routinely ignore civil rights and used excessive force by unnecessarily using dogs, baton and stun guns.

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