In its first official action amid criticism of the Wichita Police Department’s handling of Black foster teen Cedric Lofton, Wichita’s police review board canceled its meeting.
The Wichita Citizens Advisory Board, which was created in the aftermath of another high-profile death involving law enforcement, was not scheduled to discuss the Lofton case. But a group of police reform activists said they planned to speak about Lofton’s death during the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting .
“We had four or five people ready to speak on Cedric Lofton and try to get answers,” said Walt Chappell of the Wichita Racial Profiling Board.
City officials said the meeting was canceled because the board didn’t have enough members to take official action.
The Lofton case
Since the police killing of 28-year-old Andrew Finch four years ago, Wichita Citizen’s Review Board meetings have served as an outlet for residents to raise concerns and hear directly from Wichita police officials.
In the Lofton case, Wichita police responded to a 911 call from his foster father, who had concerns about Lofton’s mental health and wanted him to get a mental evaluation. When Lofton would not go to the hospital willingly, police officers grabbed him and tried to physically escort him to a police car. Lofton resisted, and a physical struggle followed that ended with Lofton cuffed and in a wrap restraint that immobilized most of his body.
Instead of taking Lofton to a hospital, as body camera video shows the officers had promised him they would do, Wichita police took Lofton to the county’s Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center on suspicion of battering a law enforcement officer. After police left, and another physical altercation, a JIAC staff member and three juvenile detention officers restrained Lofton in a prone position for nearly 45 minutes, video shows.
The Wichita Police Department has not commented or responded to questions about its use of force against Lofton and its decision to take him to a juvenile intake facility instead of a hospital. Police actions in the Lofton case have drawn criticism from local officials and Gov. Laura Kelly.
Wichita and Sedgwick County announced Tuesday that a joint task force will spend three months reviewing the case and formulating policy change recommendations. But Chappell said he doesn’t think the task force is empowered to review all of the information in the case.
“We’d like to see an independent investigation, not a task force,” Chappell said. “The task force may try their best, but they don’t have any subpoena power. They can’t interview the people from WPD — like why were there so many police officers there on that scene? What were they all doing? Weren’t they supposed to be on their beats doing something?
“That’s such an intimidating situation for that young man, and he was doing nothing, had no gun, no knife, no threats. He was just trying to get back into the house where he was supposed to be safe. So we’ve got a major problem there, and we’re trying to get answers.”
Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse called for an independent investigation Tuesday, saying “unprecedented change is not appointing another task force.”
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell asked lawmakers to ban the type of restraint used by Wichita police on Lofton and to require a mental evaluation before taking juveniles in mental duress to JIAC.
The Kansas governor criticized the Wichita police decision to take Lofton directly to JIAC in an interview with KWCH on Wednesday.
“This is a kid who should have been in a mental-health facility, not in jail,” Kelly told reporters. “So, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Not enough eligible board members
Jay Fowler, chair of the review board, said he canceled the meeting because there weren’t enough eligible board members to conduct business.
“The real reason it got canceled is that we have three members of our board whose terms expired at the end of December,” Fowler said.
City Manager Robert Layton has picked every member of the board since its inception, a practice criticized by some community activists. Layton declined an interview with The Eagle Thursday.
“Members of the community have asked for the mayor and city council to be involved in the selection process for the board,” city spokesperson Megan Lovely said in an email.
“Action to reappoint members and to fill current vacancies on the board has been delayed a month until the board appointment process is determined.”
The cancellation also delays a decision by the board to take a position on whether the city should release the names of officers accused of wrongdoing. Layton told the City Council last month that he would bring an ordinance to them for approval in February or March.
The Citizen Review Board won’t meet again until Feb. 24, according to an email from Wichita police spokesman Officer Charley Davidson.
Although it was created as a police accountability board, the review board only takes up cases provided by the Wichita Police Department and can access only the records picked by the chief of police for disclosure.
When it does review police action on a case, its members are under a gag order that prevents them from disclosing the officer’s name and discussing the details of the case or how it was handled by the police’s internal investigation.
Fowler said he expects police handling of Lofton will come before the board when community members have a chance to raise the issue.
“We can independently review policy issues, and I would anticipate that we would have the opportunity to do that here,” Fowler said.
“We don’t necessarily have to respond to a request for involvement by the department, and in fact, citizens come to us and have the ability to come and make a presentation, and we listen and the department listens, and then we can discuss policy recommendations.”
But he said the board will need to be able to reach a quorum before it can take any action.
“The dialogue, the report on cause of death, all of those sorts of things occurred in a period of time we haven’t had a meeting,” Fowler said.
Chappell said the city should not delay taking action and should change how it handles mental health calls, putting more funding into the ICT-1 program, a special unit created to specifically address mental health crises with a team consisting of a mental health professional, law enforcement officer and paramedic.
The special unit was not on duty when police responded to Lofton’s foster home around 1 a.m.
“Wichita police have got plenty of weapons, plenty of new gadgets and cars, but we haven’t had money — supposedly — to take care of these mental health issues or the drug addicted or the homeless that are on the streets,” Chappell said. “So we’re very concerned about that and wanted to be able to raise some of those issues today.”