The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners didn’t have to look far to find someone to replace Pearl Fain, the longtime executive director of the Office of Community Complaints.
The board selected deputy executive Merrell R. Bennekin to lead one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating civilian oversight agencies. The agency, funded through the city, investigates allegations of misconduct against Kansas City police officers. It refers those complaints and allegations to the department’s Internal Affairs Unit for investigation. The office then reviews the investigation and sends a report to the police chief if disciplinary action is warranted.
Bennekin took over for Fain, who had been executive director for 20 years, earlier this month.
“Merrell was an easy choice,” said Leland Shurin, police board president. “His credentials, including knowledge, education and experience, make him the great person for this position. Also, he has relationships with the Kansas City community and the Kansas City Police Department that are invaluable to provide the leadership of OCC.”
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Bennekin, 41, who has been with the office for the past 15 years, said he is looking forward to serving in his new role.
“I think it is an exciting time,” Bennekin said. “There is a little bit of anxiety because of some of the issues that are involved. It is a huge responsibility, not only locally and nationally in terms of protecting the Kansas City community but also the men and women of the Kansas City Police Department.”
Bennekin takes over the office at a time when several high-profile police shootings of African-Americans in recent years have raised tensions between law enforcement and black and Latino communities.
A Pew Research Center survey of law enforcement officers revealed that the majority of police officers think those fatal shootings and the subsequent civic protests have made their jobs more difficult and more dangerous.
The findings in a separate Pew survey showed that a slight majority of respondents said those fatal police shootings demonstrated deeper problems between police and African-Americans.
Among his priorities, Bennekin said he wants to build on many of the changes Fain implemented. The changes include increasing the agency’s transparency and public accountability, and further strengthening its ties to various communities in Kansas City. Another priority is to enhance the agency’s mediation efforts.
“Our goal is to maintain the integrity of the investigations and ensure that we are meeting the requirements of that mission prescribed by the Board of Police Commissioners,” he said. “We also want to make sure that we are fair and impartially look at the complaints and not being influenced either way by the Police Department or by the community.”
The office was established nearly 48 years ago after an uproar when a pair of officers forced a 39-year-old man out of his car and beat him with a night stick.
The number of complaints leveled against Kansas City police officers dipped slightly from 2015 to 2016. The office recorded 169 complaints in 2015 compared to 143 complaints filed last year.
Bennekin said the office is working to change the public’s perception and raise awareness about the role of the Office of Community Complaints and how complaints are handled.
“It’s important to establish and maintain neutrality so that we don’t do anything to impact public confidence in the investigative process,” he said. “That is probably the biggest challenge we face every day.”
That can be accomplished by the office having more direct community contact and outreach through face-to-face meetings and well as social media.
For more than a decade, the Office of Community Complaints has partnered with the AdHoc Group Against Crime. The anti-crime organization allows citizens to file complaints against officers at their headquarters at Linwood Boulevard and Prospect Avenue.
Bennekin is a native of Eatonton, Ga., and was raised by two educators. After graduating with honors from Morehouse College, Bennekin earned a law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law. While there, Bennekin met Kedra Williams. The two later married and now have two daughters.
Long active in the community, Bennekin is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity among other community and civic groups.
“He’s stepping into the role with continuity but also with a renewed focus because policing in 2017 is different than what it was 10 years ago,” said Councilwoman Alissia Canady, chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Committee. “He definitely has a good relationship with the community and is the one who is well respected and people can have confidence in.”