‘Civil rights crisis’: Local leaders seek federal investigation of Kansas City police

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A coalition of local civil rights organizations on Monday asked 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.

Leaders of the coalition said they wanted federal authorities to conduct a thorough review of the department, including its policing practices, allegations of internal discrimination and how the citizens complaints are handled.

“There is a human and civil rights crisis in Kansas City, Missouri, which has been long standing and has great affiliation, death and grief to our communities,” said the Rev. Vernon P. Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City. “We are left with no other recourse.”

The civil rights groups are organized under the umbrella of The Urban Council, which includes the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, SCLC, the Urban Summit, the National Black United Front-Kansas City and the NAACP’s Kansas City branch.

During a news conference in downtown Kansas City, activists noted a pattern of excessive use of force allegations in the police department, a lack of accountability, and the fatal police shootings of Black men.

For a year, local civil rights leaders have been calling for the removal of Police Chief Rick Smith.

Dr. Vernon Howard, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, was one of several civil rights leaders calling the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, during a press conference Monday morning in front of the U.S. Courthouse, downtown. Pointing to “disturbing patterns” of officer misconduct and violent policing that targets minorities, Grant and other leaders demanded action be taken by the DOJ.
Dr. Vernon Howard, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, was one of several civil rights leaders calling the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, during a press conference Monday morning in front of the U.S. Courthouse, downtown. Pointing to “disturbing patterns” of officer misconduct and violent policing that targets minorities, Grant and other leaders demanded action be taken by the DOJ.

Letter to DOJ

The group is requesting that the civil rights division of the Justice Department investigate their claims.

In its 15-page letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the group said in the past year KCPD officers have killed three unarmed Black men, 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.

“The allegations described in this letter which are extremely detailed and are egregious,” said Gavriela Geller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Board/AJC in Kansas City. “We’re talking excessive force, deadly force as well as discriminatory practices externally and internally. And these allegations deserve an investigation.”

Gwen Grant, president/CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said the Justice Department has acknowledged receiving their request. But the federal agency did not set a timetable on when it would announce whether it planned to investigate the police department.

The federal investigation sought by the Kansas City leaders would be similar to the review of the Ferguson Police Department following the fatal police shooting of a Black teen by a white police officer, Grant said.

“We expect and hope that they (DOJ) will come into Kansas City, and take a look at everything, the excessive use of force, the lawsuits settled out of court, the policing practices, the racial profiling data, the hiring... the discriminatory hiring and practices,” Grant said during the news conference.

“Every single layer of the Kansas City police department must be investigated and laid bare, so that we have accountability for the injustice that we have endured for far too long.”

Grant said the Justice Department is currently investigating police departments in Louisville, Kentucky and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Activists said the police department has not fulfilled its commitment to a 2015 agreement with the federal authorities to investigate excessive use of force against the police department.

Jean Peters Baker

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wrote a letter in support of the civil rights groups, saying they 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, BLAQUE-KC, The Committee to Abolish Poverty, Inc. Presbyterian Urban and Immigrant Ministry Network of Heartland Presbytery and Spirit of Freedom Fountain, Inc.

KCPD response

The police department released a written statement saying it has voluntarily submitted case documents regarding excessive use of force when those criteria are met and when applicable.

“Probable cause statements are a swearing under oath, under penalty of perjury, by an investigator that they believe a crime has been committed,” Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a police department spokesman, said in the statement. “Our department investigators submit a PC statement in occurrences they believe a crime has been committed, that has always been our practice.

“We take very seriously the quality of relationships and respect between the community as well as members of the organization.”

Grant said that a number of Black officers have reached out of court agreements with the police department to settle discrimination claims and an unfair promotion process.

Gwen Grant, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, was one of several civil rights leaders calling the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, during a press conference Monday morning in front of the U.S. Courthouse, downtown. Pointing to “disturbing patterns” of officer misconduct and violent policing that targets minorities, Grant and other leaders demanded action be taken by the DOJ.
Gwen Grant, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, was one of several civil rights leaders calling the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, during a press conference Monday morning in front of the U.S. Courthouse, downtown. Pointing to “disturbing patterns” of officer misconduct and violent policing that targets minorities, Grant and other leaders demanded action be taken by the DOJ.

The police department said it takes employee discrimination claims seriously.

“We have mechanisms in place to ensure that members can report any incident of discrimination or racism anonymously and we take every incident of reported racism very seriously and investigate fully whether it involves department members or the members of the community,” the department said in a statement.

For the past year, the group has called for local control of the police force. Under the current system, a five-member board of police commissioners, four of whom are appointed by Missouri’s governor. The city’s mayor always has a seat on the board.

Howard said that arrangement is out of date and racist because it prohibits citizens from having a voice in how the police department is managed.

“In addition, the state of Missouri continues to be the harbinger of lack of local control, which has left our citizens with an apartheid like, 18th and 19th century colonial type antiquated police system, where our people are killed, brutalized, rights forsaken, taken and no voice in the process,” Howard said.

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