Debate over policing roils Kansas cradle of Brown v. Board

JOHN HANNA
·5 min read

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — When police in Kansas' capital city used force the last couple of years, Black residents were on the receiving end 35% of the time, though they make up less than 11% of Topeka's population. A city auditor who reviewed more than 100 cases said the force applied was appropriate every time.

Both statistics disturb activists in the city of about 125,000 people, and the City Council is under fire after not quickly taking up dozens of proposals from the city's own advisory Human Relations Commission. Yet the council’s decision to set up a special committee on policing instead has riled residents who predict new restraints on police will make Topeka dangerous, even lawless.

The discord illustrates how wrenching the discussion over policing can be in U.S. communities. Topeka's debate also is shadowed by its history: NAACP leaders and parents here launched one of the lawsuits that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board decision in 1954 declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.

“I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that it’s OK, it’s safe, for you to walk down the street — you don’t have to take off running when you see police coming,” said the Rev. Ben Scott, who's Black, a longtime NAACP leader who has served in the Legislature and on the local school board.

Almost half of the 100 largest U.S. cities have enacted new restraints on police since George Floyd's death in May after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee against the handcuffed Black man's neck for nearly eight minutes. Among them is Kansas' largest city, Wichita, according to Project Zero, a nonprofit group advocating policing changes.

Proposals from Topeka's Human Relations Commission are similar to those circulating elsewhere. They include banning chokeholds, prohibiting officers from firing at fleeing suspects and creating independent citizen panels to investigate police misconduct allegations. The local Black Lives Matter chapter last month demanded that an inspector general oversee the police and a special state prosecutor investigate misconduct.

Topeka police used force 409 times, or during 3.9% of their arrests, in 2018 and 2019, according to a department report. In 104 cases reviewed by the city auditor from November to July, officers drew weapons in 24, fired guns twice — and, he concluded, followed police policies and state law every time.

The police force is less diverse than the city. Of 270 officers, 84% are white and not Hispanic, compared with 68% of the city's population. Seven officers or 2.6% are Black, and 22 or 8.1% are Hispanic, compared with 15% of the city's residents, according to the department.

Some Topeka residents and officials argue that advocates are framing their proposals around incidents and problems in larger cities, including Floyd's death, which sparked widespread protests against racial injustice and led to charges against four Minneapolis officers.

The local police union has argued that greater limits on officers’ use of force and an outside oversight board are moves toward defunding the police that would keep officers from protecting themselves and others.

Retired Police Lt. Ron Gish, who formed Blue Shield to show support for law enforcement, said the group, which has a Facebook page claiming several thousand members, was successful in slowing down the push for changes so local officials can see the pitfalls of various proposals — and that Topeka doesn't fit a larger national narrative.

“I don't think they realize how dangerous what they're doing could be to law enforcement and to our community,” Gish, who is white, said of the activists.

The city already has made some moves, including the November hiring of the auditor, who reports to the city manager. Police Chief Bill Cochran, who is white, decried Floyd’s death as “indefensible.” Then, in July, the City Council banned no-knock warrants in raids.

Cochran also said his department will “solidify” a commitment it already had in which officers intervene with fellow officers to prevent mistakes and misconduct. It will participate in a Georgetown University initiative that seeks to change departments’ cultures.

Mayor Michelle De La Isla, the first Hispanic woman elected to the job, sees the special City Council committee as the vehicle for reviewing all proposals. De La Isla, who is running for Congress, said in an email that across the U.S., “We have two sides talking at each other, not with each other.” But in Topeka, she said, “We have brought all sides to the table.”

But City Council member Christina Valdivia-Alcala, who also is Hispanic, is working on a plan for an independent citizens’ review board and hopes to bring it to a vote this month. She said “voices of accountability and equality are being drowned out” by angry, pro-police emails.

Some advocates say concerns about the city's policing predate Floyd's death by years.

The most visible incident was the September 2017 fatal shooting of Dominique White, a 30-year-old Black man, by two white police officers as White tried to flee. Investigators said he had a gun in his pocket, and the local prosecutor ruled that the officers' use of force was justified. His family filed a federal lawsuit that is pending.

Ariane Davis, a Black mother of seven who organized a Statehouse rally after Floyd’s death, acknowledges being frustrated because with what she sees in the community, “I always think time is of the essence.”

LaRonna Lassiter Saunders, a Kansas City-area attorney representing two Topeka residents injured in use-of-force cases, said without change, the city's leaders will be "on the wrong side of history again.”

“Hopefully, they think, ‘right side of history,’” said Saunders, who is Black.

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