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Trial of the first Kansas City police officer ever charged in a fatal shooting gets underway today

Laurie Bey, Cameron Lamb’s mother, addresses the crowd at a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday, May 31.
Laurie Bey, Cameron Lamb’s mother, addresses the crowd at a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday, May 31.

A Kansas City police detective goes on trial today for involuntary manslaughter, the first known instance in Kansas City history of a police officer charged in a fatal shooting.

Eric J. DeValkenaere is accused of recklessly shooting Cameron Lamb on Dec. 3, 2019, as Lamb was sitting in a pickup truck and backing into his garage at 41st Street and College Avenue.

The shooting occurred after a police helicopter spotted a red truck chasing a purple Mustang at high speeds through a residential neighborhood.

Lamb was 26. Police say he pulled a gun and pointed it at one of the two plainclothes officers who had approached either side of the truck. DeValkenaere fired four times, two of the bullets striking and fatally wounding Lamb.

Prosecutors argue that DeValkenaere acted recklessly by entering Lamb’s property without a warrant, knocking over a makeshift fence and firing his weapon within seconds of coming upon the pickup truck.

DeValkenaere, a member of the police force since 1999, was suspended from the force after the shooting. He also faces a charge of armed criminal action. He has waived his right to a jury and the case will be tried before Jackson County Circuit Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs. The trial is expected to last a week.

The highly charged case has exacerbated tensions between the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office and the police department. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says the police department did not cooperate with her investigation and refused to turn over a probable cause statement after she formally requested one.

DeValkenaere’s indictment by a Jackson County grand jury in June 2020 came amid heightened scrutiny of police practices across the United States following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Lamb was also Black.

Very few police officers are charged, let alone convicted, of fatal shootings. A study by the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University found that from 2005 through June 24, 2019, 104 nonfederal law enforcement officers were arrested for murder or manslaughter as a result of a fatal shooting. Only 35 were convicted — 15 via guilty pleas and 20 via jury trials. (Another 24 cases were pending at the time of the report.)

In the 35 cases resulting in convictions, 22 of the victims were Black. And only 10 of those 35 cases involved victims who were armed with a dangerous weapon when they were shot and killed.

From 2013 through 2020, 35 people — 21 of them Black — were killed by Kansas City police, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative that collects data on police killings nationwide. The data show that Kansas City police killed Black people at 4.8 times the rate of white people.

Earlier this year, civil rights groups in Kansas City asked the Department of Justice to investigate the Kansas City Police Department. They cited a persistent pattern of racial bias and inappropriate use of force.

DeValkenaere was a detective with the police department’s Violent Offender Squad at the time of the shooting and was working the streets in plain clothes.

After the police helicopter spotted the neighborhood chase involving a red pickup truck and followed it to the house on 41st and College, DeValkenaere and another plainclothes detective, Troy Schwalm, responded and arrived on the scene.

Schwalm parked his vehicle in the driveway and, gun drawn, headed to the back of the house. DeValkenaere arrived moments later and also proceeded to the back of the house with his gun drawn.

Lamb was slowly backing the pickup down a ramp into a basement garage. In court documents, his attorneys say that DeValkenaere and Schwalm yelled at Lamb to show his hands as he was doing so.

They say Lamb initially obeyed the command, but then as the truck came to rest in the garage, he reached for his waistband with his left hand, pulled a gun and pointed it at Schwalm. DeValkenaere, after yelling to Schwalm, “He’s got a gun!” then fired his weapon four times through the windshield.

Tactical officers later identified a gun on the ground beneath Lamb’s left hand, which was hanging out of the open driver’s side window, according to DeValenaere’s attorneys.

Prosecutors paint a different picture. They say that just before the shooting, Schwalm, who was on the driver’s side of the truck, was able to see Lamb’s left hand but not his right. Schwalm said that Lamb was looking at him and had his left hand on the steering wheel with his fingers splayed out and no gun in them.

They say Lamb was right-handed and unable to fully use his left hand because of a prior injury.

A critical piece of evidence in the case is likely to be a voicemail message. Phone records indicate Lamb made a phone call just before or around the time DeValkenaere opened fire. The call went to voicemail, which recorded the aftermath of the shooting.

According to findings in support of the indictment, a voice can be heard on the voicemail demanding that Lamb exit the vehicle, show his hands and keep his hand or hands up. The cell phone was later found by his right side.

Prosecutors plan to call about two dozen witnesses, the majority of them members of the police force, including the crime scene investigators. DeValkenaere’s attorneys plan to call a handful of witnesses, including a retired major with the Springfield, Missouri, Police Department.

In June, Lamb’s family sued the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and DeValkenaere, accusing them of violating Lamb’s civil rights. The wrongful death lawsuit seeks $10 million in damages on behalf of Lamb’s four young children.

“The Kansas City Police Department has a well-documented, continuing, widespread, and persistent pattern of utilizing excessive and often deadly force,” the lawsuit states.

The family is represented by some of the same attorneys who represent the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was fatally shot by three white men while jogging in a small town in Georgia. The criminal trial of the three men got underway last week.

Although DeValkenaere’s trial marks the first time a Kansas City law enforcement officer has been charged in a fatal shooting, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s office has pursued charges against law enforcement officials involved in non-fatal shootings.

Earlier this year, Lauren N. Michael, a former Jackson County sheriff’s deputy who shot a woman in the back after she tried to flee an arrest, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault. She was sentenced to 180 days in jail.

And just a month or so before DeValkenaere was indicted, prosecutors charged two Kansas City police officers with felony assault in connection with the May 2019 arrest of Breona Hill, a Black transgender woman. A video of the arrest taken by a passerby showed the officers kneeing Hill in the face, torso and ribs while she was handcuffed and lying on the sidewalk.

Hill was shot and killed in an unrelated incident in October 2019. The alleged shooter was arrested at the scene shortly afterward.

The two police officers, Matthew G. Brummett and Charles W. Prichard, are scheduled to go on trial before a jury on Dec. 6.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.