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‘I don’t want another child’s death’: Police, agencies adopt some Lofton task force ideas

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Courtesy photo
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Cedric Lofton

Law enforcement agencies continue to make changes to prevent another incident like the one that led to the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton.

Cedric Lofton might be alive today if mental health professionals had responded to his foster father’s 911 call seeking help.

But ICT-1, the team made up of a paramedic, a mental health worker and a police officer, isn’t staffed on Fridays. Instead, Wichita police responded to the call for a mental health evaluation on their own.

The situation escalated and officers ended up taking Lofton to juvenile lockup, where the unarmed teen was fatally restrained by five county corrections workers in September 2021.

A new plan aims to prevent another such tragedy by making mental health professionals the initial point of contact for people experiencing mental health crises. A collaboration between Comcare, Sedgwick County’s mental health provider, and the city of Wichita would ensure that a mobile mental health team is available to respond and provide on-scene treatment for people in crisis between 8 a.m. and 3 a.m. seven days a week.

By the end of January, a social worker will be embedded in the county’s 911 center to screen calls and direct the emergency response to reports of people struggling with mental illness. The four teams of mental health workers can be dispatched with or without law enforcement.

The change comes in the wake of recommendations made by the juvenile justice task force charged with identifying systemic failures that contributed to the Black 17-year-old’s death.

“This young man stays on my heart. I don’t want another child’s death in Wichita,” task force member Tracey Mason said earlier this month at the committee’s 180-day follow-up meeting.

"I’m glad this city is starting to prioritize funding mental health resources outside of the police department,” task force member Jazmine Rogers told The Eagle.

“Mental health responders and social workers are really a collaborative team that’s available, and especially available when police presence is not needed. There are definitely times when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis that police officers can add to someone’s anxiety and stress level.”

The appointed task force proposed an array of nonbinding reforms for the state foster care system, Wichita police and the county’s 911 and youth corrections systems. Local and state agencies have implemented 26 of the 58 recommendations.

Another 26 policy and programming recommendations are in progress, department heads told the task force. A breakdown of progress on each recommendation can be found on the task force’s online dashboard.

“Currently, we have three mobile crisis clinicians — so those are the ones that are licensed, able to complete those screens and recommendations for treatment — and then we have two integrated care specialists,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of crisis services at Comcare.

The city will pay to hire an additional clinician and two integrated care specialists, ensuring a mobile mental health response team will be on call 17 hours a day. Those new hires have not yet been made but officials say the additional mobile teams will become operational in the coming months to supplement ICT-1, which is staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

DCF, WICHITA POLICE CHANGES
The Kansas Department of Children and Families has fully implemented four of its 14 recommendations from the task force. Another eight are listed as in progress.

Gov. Laura Kelly ordered DCF to investigate a private foster care agency’s handling of Lofton in January. Findings have not been made public.

The state committed to fully funding evidence-based prevention and intervention programs designed to keep youth out of the foster care system, as well as supporting legislation to establish a foster youth and foster parent bill of rights. That legislation was introduced in the Kansas House earlier this year.

No progress has been made toward the recommendation calling for DCF and its contracting foster care agencies to ensure employees and foster families receive benefits that include mental health and mindfulness coaching.

Sedgwick County 911 is in the process of implementing four of five recommendations, with the exception of hiring a continuing education coordinator for the department. The Wichita Police Department has adopted six of 16 recommendations and is working to implement another six, officials told the task force.

The police department is expanding its crisis intervention training to meet the recommendation that the training be mandatory for law enforcement supervisors and for all officers between their third and fifth years in the field.

“I think it’s fantastic that they’ve finally found a way to offer CIT training to more people within their department. But I also think that should have been a starting point,” Rogers said. “That should have been step one out of many more steps to create a culture within WPD that is more compassionately responsive to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”

In police body cam footage from the night Lofton was fatally restrained, one officer can be heard saying to another, “For me, I think we should have taken him to St. Joe” hospital, according to the district attorney’s homicide report. The decision to book Lofton into the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC) after he resisted arrest was made by a Wichita police supervisor who had not undergone crisis intervention training.

“Them having the ability, having the power to speak up, to question a final order, could have saved Cedric’s life that night,” Rogers said.

Incoming Wichita Police Chief Joe Sullivan told The Eagle that by January, he plans to craft a best practices policy specifying what officers should do when they think the wrong decision is being made in a crisis situation or if they are given an unlawful order.

"Questioning leadership complements leadership,” Sullivan said in an interview Tuesday. “When bullets are flying, you can’t question your supervisor,” he said, adding that in a situation like Lofton’s, there is no reason there can’t be an established procedure for questioning decisions.

Sullivan said he also plans to implement a policy mandating that anyone placed in a wrap restraint or injured during a struggle with police must be cleared by EMS at the scene or taken to the hospital.

“When you put all those together, we’ll have really reduced the likelihood of a terrible tragedy like that from happening again,” Sullivan said.

Police officials say they are working to implement a random review process for screening officers’ Axon body cam footage, as the task force recommended. But Capt. Dan East told committee members the department is unlikely to implement the other half of the recommendation, which calls for officers to keep their cameras recording throughout an incident, including while paperwork is filled out.

"First is the battery life. That is a big concern because when that battery goes out, it takes quite a bit of time for those to recharge,” East said.

Cameras have 10-12 hours of battery life, he said, and officers work 10-hour shifts.

“The main reason that we wanted this Axon policy changed — or at least for myself — is because there’s an hour of body camera footage missing while officers were still at JIAC completing their incident reports and also when the JIAC form was changed,” Rogers said during the meeting.

A Wichita officer changed his answers on the admission form after learning that the boxes he had checked would require police to take Lofton to a hospital for treatment, The Eagle previously reported. The officer’s body cam was not recording when he left the room to confer with other officers before changing his answers.

Police then left the intake center and were unable to return quickly to assist county workers who engaged in an extended struggle with Lofton, holding the 135-pound teen facedown for nearly 45 minutes as they attempted to handcuff him. Under a new memorandum of understanding between police and the juvenile facility, officers who bring an “allegedly combative, noncompliant youth” into the facility must now stay there or nearby until the youth is processed.

The medical criteria for admission form now explicitly requires “current and accurate information prior to transfer.”

SEDGWICK COUNTY YOUTH CORRECTIONS CHANGES
Twenty-five of the task force’s 58 recommendations pertained to the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections. So far, 16 of those recommendations have been implemented and another eight are in progress.

The county commission voted last week to change the juvenile facility’s use of force policy, and the Kansas Department of Corrections is close to finalizing those changes, which would prohibit staff from restraining youth after they’re secured in a holding cell, as they did Lofton. The changes would also require more transparency in documenting use of force in juvenile facilities and require a third-party observer to monitor and ensure restraints are not applied excessively.

Per the task force’s recommendation, the county plans to “only allow the prone position to be used to cuff and sit or cuff and stand” juveniles. Corrections officers told investigators they continued to restrain Lofton because they could not get him into handcuffs, although the youth was already secured in ankle shackles.

“This is consistent with the Safe Clinch training course which allows the prone position for immediate containment purposes to then transition, as outlined in the policy,” County Corrections Director Steve Stonehouse said of the revised policy.

Rogers said she doesn’t think the limitation goes far enough. She would like to see use of prone restraint reevaluated at the state level.

“A larger policy opportunity for state legislators is to really examine what it looks like to eliminate the use of the prone position across our whole state, because I think there’s been enough death and enough research and data going back decades now to demonstrate that using the prone position leads to people suffocating,” Rogers said. “It should no longer be used, especially when we’re talking about young people in facilities.”

JIAC has changed its policy so that teens who have been placed in a wrap restraint cannot be admitted before receiving a medical evaluation. The county department of corrections has also implemented the task force’s recommendation of keeping a trained nurse on call at the juvenile lockup facility and providing for remote access to mental health consultants, as well as establishing a “calming room” that Stonehouse said is used every day.

The room is used to give youth experiencing some form of distress a chance to decompress without being restrained or placed in a holding cell.

"I don’t know why we didn’t do it before, because it’s not hard,” Stonehouse said.

He said the department has yet to make progress toward the task force recommendation of establishing a juvenile justice citizen’s review board with “quasi-judicial powers.” A similar task force-proposed community advisory board to oversee Sedgwick County 911 is still seeking potential members, officials said.

“For me, it’s more about it being implemented,” Mason said. “For everything they spoke on, it’s more later on down the line, right? I want them to be implemented.”

STAND YOUR GROUND
The task force petitioned the Sedgwick County Commission to initiate a state review of the stand your ground law identified by District Attorney Marc Bennett as the reason he didn’t pursue charges against the county employees who held the unarmed teen facedown on the concrete floor.

The county commission did not include that review as a legislative priority for 2023, but Assistant County Manager Rusty Leeds said the issue was discussed at a meeting with the joint committee on corrections and juvenile justice oversight earlier this month.

“There was one representative who posed the question to the committee as to whether or not they could vote on initiating a review of the stand your ground law,” Leeds said. “That committee discussed it for a few minutes and indicated that they would have to revisit that during [the legislative] session.”

Bennett said bringing charges against the county employees involved in Lofton’s death would have been futile under the self-defense statute, which allows for the use of deadly force if a person “reasonably believes” it to be necessary to defend themselves or someone else against a deadly threat.

“That’s the one thing that’s missing for me is I still haven’t heard from them saying when they was in fear of their life,” Mason said.

Former Sedgwick County Corrections Director Glenda Martens said after Lofton’s death that the five employees who restrained him “acted well within the policy and the requirements of that policy.” Those employees have returned to work after being placed on paid leave during an investigation.

Sedgwick County spokesperson Nicole Gibbs declined to say whether any of the employees faced disciplinary measures for their conduct during the incident, citing personnel records. Mason said he’s heartened by the progress that has been made, but he doesn’t think Sedgwick County and Wichita have fully owned up to the mistakes that led to a vulnerable child dying on their watch.

“They’re not saying we failed. They’re saying the system failed,” said Mason, who owns a boxing gym for at-risk youth. “When I fail kids, I say, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t able to show up. Man, I let you down.”

Rogers said the seriousness with which agencies continue to implement task force recommendations will reflect on the entire community’s commitment to preventing another tragedy.

“What legacy do we want this to have? How do we want to be able to look back and say that we as a community, across agencies, came together to prevent this from happening again?” Rogers said.

This story was originally published on Kansas.com by The Wichita Eagle. It is published here as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, an alliance of 10 community organizations — including KMUW — formed to support and enhance quality local journalism.