A lawsuit filed this week in federal court blames the governing board of the Kansas City Police Department for policies that, the suit says, led to the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Ryan Stokes in 2013.
Stokes’ mother, Narene Stokes-James, filed the suit Thursday, three years to the day after Stokes was fatally shot by a Kansas City police officer at the conclusion of a foot chase near the Power & Light District about 3 a.m.
Stokes-James has long said that the shooting of her son was not justified. Stokes’ death has drawn more protest than any other fatal police shooting in recent years in Kansas City.
The lawsuit also includes Stokes’ 4-year-old daughter as a plaintiff and names as defendants the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and the police officer who shot Stokes, William Thompson.
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At the time Stokes died, he was unarmed. In statements to investigators, Thompson said he saw a gun in Stokes’ hand when the two crossed paths in a parking lot near 12th and McGee streets. After the shooting, police found a gun in a car next to Stokes’ body.
Cynthia Short, a lawyer who is representing Stokes-James in the suit, said she thinks the gun was in the car the whole time and that Thompson, who is biracial, pulled the trigger too quickly when he saw a young black man running.
“We are prepared for the fight ahead and pray that our lawsuit will lead to changes that will reduce the number of young men and women killed by police,” Short said.
On Friday, the Police Department said its policy is to not comment on pending litigation.
On Thursday, Stokes’ family gathered with supporters at Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church, where local ministers pledged to protest police use of force against young black men.
The suit challenges the police investigation and accuses the Board of Police Commissioners of “consistently and systematically failing” to genuinely question shootings and criticize officers’ use of deadly force.
“There is no independent investigation involving non-police personnel into the excessive use of force by KCPD’s officers,” the suit says.
The Stokes shooting was one of 47 fatal police shootings in Kansas City from 2005 through 2015 examined last year by The Star, which found that the Office of Community Complaints, which handles citizen grievances against officers, does not have the power to probe police shootings. Other cities have created independent monitors to review such cases.
In Kansas City, shootings by police are typically investigated by the department’s own detectives. They can refer violations of department rules to internal affairs, and if a civil rights violation is alleged, the FBI and U.S. attorney may get involved.
In the Stokes case, police commanders gave Thompson a commendation. A grand jury declined to indict him, and a police shooting panel that reviewed the incident made no recommendations for changes in training or department policy.
Police have defended the integrity of their investigation and said the shooting was deemed reasonable because Stokes was fleeing from police officers and Thompson thought he saw a gun in Stokes’ hand. Witnesses told police they saw Stokes toss away a gun moments before the shooting. Investigators concluded that Stokes put the gun in the car just before he was shot.
The lawsuit makes several other complaints about department policies and decisions, including the assignment of Thompson, who had been working a desk job in the department’s research and development division, to patrol the Power & Light area on a Saturday night.
Short questioned whether Thompson was prepared for the street-level policing challenges he encountered. Thompson had been on the force for 16 years.
The suit also questions the decision of police officers to pursue Stokes and his friend after two men leaving a bar reported a cellphone stolen. The whereabouts of the phone remain unknown.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.