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Allegations of police bias in Kansas result in few sanctions

WCN 24/7, flickr Creative Commons

The vast majority of bias complaints made against Kansas law enforcement agencies are not found to have merit, according to a review of data by the Associated Press.

TOPEKA — Kansas law enforcement agencies have received hundreds of complaints of bias over the past 10 years, but records available to the public show only two alleging racial bias resulted in consequences for officers, an Associated Press examination of the data shows.

Advocates for racial equality question how that could be the case and suggest that law enforcement investigating complaints against other officers and a lack of transparency are problems.

“We have the police policing the police,” said Sheila Officer, the chairwoman of the citizens group Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita. She says independent citizen panels should conduct investigations of complaints.

Law enforcement agencies and groups interviewed by the AP would not comment on the low overall rates at which bias complaints have been sustained, but said that in their own departments complaints are thoroughly investigated by officers independent of those accused.

“Through our hiring processes and background checks and vetting, we hire people of high moral character,” said Sgt. Joel Yeldell, a spokesperson with Olathe Police in suburban Kansas City. “We’re going to make mental mistakes throughout this profession, but the idea is to not make mistakes of the heart.”

Osawatomie Police Department Lt. Nick Gazzano, who helps investigate racial bias complaints, said he thinks letting civilian advisory boards make decisions for law enforcement as some advocates suggest would be a litigation risk.

“People don’t know how to be a cop. They have no idea what the law is, they really don’t. They have no idea about the stresses of police and what we do on scene,” Gazzano said.

Kansas defines biased policing as an officer's “unreasonable” use of a person’s race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or religion when enforcing laws. Lawmakers in 2011 required agencies to submit to the attorney general's office annual reports outlining how many complaints they'd received and what they did about them.

The goal was to provide transparency. But the system is complicated and the substance of most reports isn't readily available for public viewing. Even though the law requires the reports to be available online, not all law enforcement agencies file reports every year and they face no penalty if they don't.

The public can file complaints with the law enforcement agency or the attorney general’s office. Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office hasn't investigated the complaints it gets since 2017 because grant funding for an investigator ran out, but it forwards some complaints to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standard and Training, CPOST, the agency that can suspend or revoke peace officers’ licenses.

“It is difficult to prove bias based policing cases because quite often what you need to prove is that the officer was biased, that he had some thoughts that he was biased, that he’s a racist" or something of that nature, said Gary Steed, who served as the executive director of CPOST from 2012 until retiring in August. Steed is a former Sedgwick County Sheriff.

The Associated Press reviewed reports of more than 700 bias complaints filed by members of the public to local and state law enforcement agencies and university campus police since 2011. Most of the records were too vaguely worded to determine whether the complaint alleged racial bias or another type of bias.

The records show a 2019 case in Wichita in which two officers were accused of using racial epithets during an investigation, according to police spokesman Charley Davidson. Wichita police did not uphold allegations for one officer, but the other resigned “prior to termination,” Davidson said in an email.

The AP also obtained through a records request 17 bias complaints that the attorney general’s office forwarded to CPOST over the past two years. CPOST Executive Director Doug Schroeder declined to say what action CPOST took on specific complaints, citing a law that makes the records private.

However, CPOST’s website shows that it revoked the license of a former deputy with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, which said last year the deputy was fired for racist remarks about a homicide in Africa and a threat to someone who insulted the deputy on social media.

The AP also found seven complaints in which investigators said officers violated department policies but did not demonstrate racial bias. Liberal, for example, said two cases involved a lack of courtesy rather than racial bias, and Johnson County said one of its three sustained complaints involved a deputy forwarding an unprofessional email to coworkers.

The Kansas situation isn’t unusual. Sam Sinyangwe, a data scientist who co-founded the policing reform group Campaign Zero, said it’s rare for police departments to uphold racial bias complaints. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department has received thousands of complaints alleging bias but hasn’t upheld any of them.

Sinyangwe said Kansas law enforcement could improve transparency by making police misconduct records available to the public. In states like Florida and Illinois, he said, most misconduct records are public records.

Brendon Fox, a Fort Hays State University assistant professor, isn't surprised that so few complaints are found to have merit. Fox, who is Black, sued the city of Wichita in federal court in 2012 after his complaint of racial bias was unsubstantiated by police investigators. The suit was dismissed at the request of both sides.

Fox said a Wichita officer pulled him over in 2011 for failing to signal within 100 feet of a stop sign. His lawsuit said the officer asked to search Fox’s rented car and when Fox declined, the officer called for a K-9 unit and a supervisor.

Fox said at least three squad cars were behind his rented car when the supervisor, a sergeant, approached.

“He looks at the car and goes, ’You have to admit that this is probably a nicer car than you’re used to driving,’” Fox said.

Davidson, the Wichita police spokesperson, declined to say why the complaint Fox filed wasn’t upheld.