Kansas City police have fatally shot an average of about four civilians a year over the past decade, according to data compiled by The Star. That’s a higher number than reported by many peer cities and one that should concern city leaders and the community.
Police have been involved in 47 fatal shootings since 2005. None of the shootings has created the sort of upheaval seen in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Chicago, where a video showing an officer shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in October 2014 has enraged citizens and threatened the tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté and his command staff have worked hard to build strong community relationships. But one questionable police shooting could unravel any harmony. It makes sense for the Police Department to review its policies in a transparent and collaborative manner now.
The response to The Star’s findings from Michael C. Rader, president of the Board of Police Commissioners, unfortunately was typical of the state-appointed board’s long-standing reluctance to seriously question department policies and practices.
Rader said he saw no need for more oversight on police shootings, noting that the FBI can review controversial shootings. He misses the point. If the FBI has to review a shooting then something has already gone badly wrong.
Mayor Sly James declined to comment on the issue, saying through a spokesman that it is a matter for the police board. But the mayor is a member of the police board, not to mention the city’s most high-profile leader. It is unusual and disappointing to see him go silent on this particular issue.
Preventing police shootings is not a matter to place solely in the lap of law enforcement.
For too long Kansas City has tolerated a level of violent crime that consistently places it in the top 10 of most dangerous U.S. cities. That problem needs attention at every level, starting in people’s homes.
Kansas City is awash in firearms, and unwise state laws effectively prevent city leaders from taking steps to get guns off the streets. People as young as 19 can apply for a concealed carry permit, and even younger individuals carry guns illegally. Those are realities that police officers confront daily on the job.
Also, neither Missouri or Kansas invests sufficient resources to care for individuals who are mentally ill or abusing drugs or alcohol. The Star’s analysis showed that almost half of deadly police shootings involved a person fitting those descriptions.
The Star’s report has generated calls for an independent monitor or commission to review police shootings. The Office of Community Complaints, which reviews other problems between police and civilians, has no jurisdiction to investigate shootings.
We think the entire apparatus for reviewing reports by citizens who contend they were mistreated by police needs an overhaul. In general, the process takes too long and often results in an inconclusive outcome.
As Forté noted, any civilian oversight of police shootings would have to be carefully designed so that the process and findings are perceived as credible.
Certainly, there is a need for more transparency. The family of Ryan Stokes has been in agony since the 24-year-old man was killed by a police officer in July 2013. Much of the family’s anguish has been caused by conflicting accounts and missing information about what actually happened. An independent monitor could help shed light on such incidents.
In Kansas City, most police shootings are reviewed by grand juries to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. Those proceedings are conducted in secret.
What is known, however, is that for years grand juries in Jackson County that were scheduled to consider a police shooting have received an orientation session that includes a visit to the Regional Training Academy. There, they have been given an opportunity to use the academy’s training simulator, which replicates dangerous situations and often portrays officers at a disadvantage if they wait too long to fire their weapons.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker should not continue that practice. Some training and information about police procedures is necessary for jurors to do their jobs, but the use of the simulator goes too far. It is designed to elicit empathy with police officers among grand jurors, who are supposed to be unbiased.
Kansas City, with its fairly high number of deadly police shootings, is fortunate to have escaped an uproar over them to this point.
Now is the time for leaders to become serious about establishing a review process that will have credibility in the community. A knowledgeable and impartial monitor could point out lessons to be learned.
Four deadly shootings a year at the hands of police officers will no longer pass with little scrutiny. City and police leaders ignore that reality at their peril.