Civil Rights Groups Call for DOJ Civil Rights Investigation into KCPD

Andrei Stoica and Brynn Fitzsimmons

7/28/2021- Kansas City, Missouri

Police Chief Rick Smith at the July 27 Board of Police Commissioners meeting in Kansas City, Missouri.

Photo by Andrei Stoica

Two letters were submitted from local civil rights groups this week, calling on Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to open a Department of Justice Civil Rights Investigation into the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department.

It's Time 4 Justice submitted a letter requesting a Patterns and Practices Investigation and detailing what they termed, "narrative on some of the most egregious actions of the KCPD."

"There is a clear pattern of policing in Kansas City, MO that demonstrates horrendous practices of “excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices” from the police department," their letter said. "To facilitate with establishing trust for all community members of Kansas City, we implore you to open this Patterns and Practices Investigation as soon as possible."

The group also called out the Kansas City Fraternal Order of the Police, explaining, "Further, the Fraternal Order of Police union that protects the KCPD has made it quite evident that they have a lack of regard for doing the right thing by continuing to cover up police misconduct."

The letter was supported by Getting to the Heart of the Matter, a local group of faith leaders who had worked with KCPD to "establish trust and reduce violence." Several members of the group have recently begun to speak out against the department, resulting in apparent backlash from KCPD.

The group has also opened their own complaints collection portal, where anyone who has witnessed or been a victim of police misconduct can submit a complaint. Complaints can be submitted anonymously.

A local coalition of civil rights groups, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League, More Squared, Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, El Centro and many other groups, also issued a 15-page letter to the attorney general, also requesting a civil rights investigation. The letter was released Monday, July 26.

Gwen Grant of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City said the groups had begun looking into KCPD practices in 2019 following the killing of Terrence Bridges. She said that as the groups investigated that particular incident, they uncovered more and more issues with the police department.

The request was also supported with a letter from Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters’ Baker. “There is a human and civil rights crisis in the city of Kansas City Missouri, and in Jackson County which has been longstanding and has caused great suffering, affliction, death, grief to our communities,” said Vernon Howard of SCLC at a press conference on Monday. “The core of those human and civil rights violations of our community lie within the Kansas City Police Department law enforcement and its leader Chief Rick Smith. We stand here today because we are left with no other recourse.”

Howard cited the state’s lack of intervention in public outcry over policing in Kansas City. Grant said the civil rights groups is hoping for a complete investigation of the department, similar to what was completed in Ferguson, Missouri. She said the letter aimed to provide a jumping off point for this type of investigation.

“Every single layer of operations in Kansas City Police Department must be investigated and laid bare so that we have accountability for the injustices that we have endured for far too long,” Grant said.

The letters from It's Time 4 Justice and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters’ Baker are included below in their entirety. This story will be updated with the Urban Council’s letter when it becomes available.

Letter from It's Time 4 Justice

The Honorable Merrick Garland, Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Ave, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney Garland,

We write to urge you to open a Patterns and Practices Investigation with the Kansas City Police Department in Kansas City, Missouri to help ensure “lawful and fair policing” for all community residents of the KC Metro area. There is a clear pattern of policing in Kansas City, MO that demonstrates horrendous practices of “excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices” from the police department.

Further, the Fraternal Order of Police union that protects the KCPD has made it quite evident that they have a lack of regard for doing the right thing by continuing to cover up police misconduct. The FOP for KCPD is one part of the “systemic deficiencies” that have been leveraged against the residents of Kansas City to “contribute to misconduct [and] enable it to persist”.

To facilitate with establishing trust for all community members of Kansas City, we implore you to open this Patterns and Practices Investigation as soon as possible. Beyond the need for policing that is “lawful, effective, and responsive to community needs”, our community needs to heal from the years of trauma inflicted upon them by a zealous police force that has been left unchecked without any requirements for transparency and accountability. Healing cannot begin until there is a concerted and intentional effort to bring forth the misgivings and the highlights of the Kansas City Police Department.

To provide further clarification on the current patterns and practices that are on full display by the KCPD, we have provided narrative on some of the most egregious actions of the KCPD.

During the early parts of March 2020, Donnie Sanders was shot by the KCPD. The Kansas City prosecuting attorney’s office was unable to bring charges against KCPD Officer Blayne Newton in the fatal shooting of Donnie Sanders in March 2020. Per the case, witnesses upheld statements around seeing Sanders with a gun; however, family reports that the witnessing neighbor’s Ring doorbell (that was provided by KCPD itself into neighborhoods or areas where higher rates of

crime occurs) was removed by KCPD the day after the fatal shooting. Family reports that KCPD removed the entire device, and returned a brand-new device to the original owner. There was no doorbell footage recovered by the family, as the witness refused to cooperate with the family. However, when the public had access to dash cam footage of the incident, it was apparent that Sanders fled his vehicle after being pulled over, and Newton chased after him before fatally shooting him with three gunshot wounds which entered into Sanders’ back. KCPD stated, after the officer already killed Sanders and the scene had been investigated, that Sanders did not have a gun. This is a Constitutional Violation of the Eighth Amendment- “cruel & unusual punishment” which is evidenced by Newton fatally shooting Sanders during a traffic stop because Sanders fled on foot.

In 2019, a disturbance between two vehicles was reported near 35th Street and College Avenue. A police helicopter tracked one of the vehicles, which pulled behind a residence six blocks away. Officers approached a man in the vehicle and shot and killed him. Officers allege Cameron Lamb pointed a gun at them from inside the vehicle. The officer who shot Lamb is being tried for involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action. The case reportedly has to do largely with the Fourth Amendment. It is unclear what led up to officers following Mr. Lamb back to his home, where they approached him in plainclothes while he was backing his truck into his garage. KCPD alleges that officer Eric DeValkenaere shot Mr. Lamb as he had a gun; however, this is disputable, as Mr. Lamb was allegedly found with a gun, after he was killed, in his non-dominant hand. The case against DeValkenaere is currently under a grand jury indictment by the prosecuting attorney's office; however, per case reports, he filed a motion for a bench trial subject to occur in September 2021.

Again, in March 2021, Missouri Highway Patrol officers (special team) were looking for an aggravated assault suspect, Malcolm D. Johnson, and found him at a gas station. According to the KCPD, officers tried to make an arrest inside the gas station, and a fight ensued. There were initially two officers and the man, Mr. Johnson, in the store. A short time later, two other offers entered. Johnson reportedly retrieved a gun and struck one of the officers. During the ensuing struggle, officers shot and killed Mr. Johnson. CCTV footage has been released as of 06/01/2021 showing an alternative story. Police approached Malcolm D. Johnson in the BP gas station with guns drawn. In an effort to flee immediate danger, Mr. Johnson tried to run; however, a scuffle ensued, and officers immediately got Mr. Johnson to the ground, where the police allege he pulled a gun; however, reports indicate that Mr. Johnson was shot in the head. One of the several officers involved was shot in the leg, but did not suffer significant injury. The story originally provided by KCPD and MO Highway Patrol contradicts what is shown in the surveillance footage. Furthermore, there is cell phone footage that shows the row between the officers and Mr. Johnson which conflicts with the initial statement given by the Missouri Highway Patrol. It took three months for this event to come to light and gives evidence to the lack of trust from the public towards KCPD, as the cell phone video was not given to KCPD, but rather leaders of the community.

Additionally, the KCPD settled with the family of a 15-year old victim, M.K., in the amount of $725,000 due to excessive force being used. The victim was reportedly involved in a confrontation at a fast-food restaurant and when police were called, M.K. and another man got in a vehicle and left the scene. Police pursued the vehicle and a short time later, the vehicle stopped. At that point, the occupants of the vehicle got out, put their hands up and got on their knees. Although neither occupant was resisting, KCPD officer, Sgt. Matthew Neal put his knee on M.K.’s neck, causing the child to struggle to breathe. Sgt. Neal used such excessive force to the victim, that M.K. had to be treated for cuts, bruises, and broken teeth. M.K. was not charged for any crime due to the confrontation.

Moreover, the KCPD has continued to demonstrate a lack of civility towards those whom they are supposed to “protect and serve”. Plus, the KCPD has misrepresented data, including potentially conflated numbers published by KCPD themselves on their website for public viewing regarding homicide clearance rates. In all years of homicide analysis data, KCPD makes note that they do not include officer-involved homicides. For example, in 2017, KCPD reports either 149 (per 2017 Homicide Analysis) or 150 (per 2017 Annual Report) total homicides in Kansas City, MO; it is noted that they do not include officer-involved homicide. However, preliminary data by independent research suggests that there were a total of 157 total homicides in the year 2017. In 2017, there were 5 instances of fatal encounters involving KCPD.

This continues to be the pattern of how KCPD operates and their lack of effort to provide any transparency to those in the community further demonstrates the critically acute need for the DOJ and the Office for Civil Rights to commence with a Patterns and Practice investigation to the KCPD.

We stand ready to assist in whatever capacity is needed to begin this investigation and commence an era of healing.

In Solidarity, In partnership with:

It’s Time 4 Justice The Heart of the Matter

CC: Office for Civil Rights, USA

Letter from Jean Peters Baker

Dear Attorney General Garland:

I am writing this letter in support of a request from numerous Kansas City, MO, civil rights, community and civic organizations to investigate the Kansas City Police Department, which is greatly troubled by deepening mistrust between it and its community.

In a recent letter to your office, these community voices strongly cited numerous examples of why they felt compelled to make this request. My concerns can be organized this way:

  • Too many excessive force and deadly force incidents involving minority community members as victims exist. Currently, five police officers are facing charges related to excessive force; yet, they remain on the force with pay.

  • The community has no trust in the investigation of these incidents. Most excessive force cases remain under investigation by the department itself. In recent months, outside police agency agreed to investigate fatal officer-involved incidents. But the community’s belief that these investigations are not truly independent of KCPD has only grown. Such distrust promises to increase violence in our most harmed urban neighborhoods.

  • The overall governance of the department, a state board appointed by a governor with little support in our urban community, is deeply troubling. Kansas City is the only major city in America with no control over its police department. This simply increases distrust and offers few options for the community to address their concerns. The police board and police command can simply ignore the community.

Kansas City’s police department suffers from many problems identified in cities now in turmoil about their police force. 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. My office stands ready to assist in your efforts,

Most Sincerely,

Jean Peters Baker

Prosecutor for Jackson County

Published on: 7/28/2021