Things had turned a bit chaotic outside the Power & Light District when a camera on a Kansas City police car recorded 24-year-old Ryan Stokes running across Grand Boulevard.
He was one of a group of young people moving away from a spot where an officer had deployed pepper spray to break up an altercation. Stokes wore a white T-shirt and dark basketball shorts on his stocky frame. His hands swung freely. If he was carrying a substantial object, like a gun, it was not apparent.
Within two minutes, Stokes would be fatally wounded. He was shot in the side by a Kansas City police officer in a parking lot near the corner of 12th and McGee streets at 2:58 a.m. on July 28, 2013.
The officer told investigators he had seen Stokes with a gun and believed he posed a threat to police officers who were approaching from another direction. About six weeks later, a Jackson County grand jury determined the shooting to be justifiable.
Were the same event to happen today, in the post-Ferguson era of greater scrutiny of police shootings, it likely would have received more of a public examination.
For this reason: No gun was found on Stokes, a black Kansas City man, when he fell to the pavement mortally wounded.
The officer, who was also African-American, told investigators he found a gun on the driver’s seat of the red Monte Carlo beside which Stokes had been standing. He and three other officers said they had seen Stokes open and close the door immediately before he was shot.
The weapon in the car was legally owned by Ollie Outley, a friend who had driven Stokes to the downtown entertainment district that weekend night. He says the gun was stored in a space between the console and the driver’s seat, and neither he nor Stokes took it to the Power & Light District.
The events that led to the death of Stokes, a reliable young man with a job, a young daughter and no criminal record, began about 2:45 a.m. near the corner of 13th Street and Grand Boulevard. There, a partier in another group accused Outley of stealing his cellphone.
That probably didn’t happen. A person with the accuser would later admit they both were intoxicated. No phone was ever found. But some pushing and shoving ensued, causing a police officer to use pepper spray.
Dashcam video obtained by Cynthia Short, a lawyer working on behalf of Stokes’ family, shows numerous young people running across Grand Boulevard, some staggering from the pepper spray.
Among them were Stokes and another young man he’d been hanging out with, Kenneth Cann. Outley had pepper spray in his eyes and stayed near the scene. He said he gave Stokes his car keys and was waiting to be picked up.
The man with the missing cellphone approached police and said Stokes and Cann were making off with his property, ignoring the fact that Outley, whom he’d first accused, was standing nearby.
At least two officers took off after Stokes and Cann, who ran east on 13th Street and then north on McGee. One officer announced breathlessly on his radio that he was in a foot pursuit. A police dispatcher asked for a clarification on the location, and a calmer voice said “12th and McGee.”
Four seconds after that communication, an officer who was about 10 feet north of Stokes fired three shots and hit Stokes with two. The officer told investigators he’d been in an adjacent parking lot, heard radio chatter about the foot pursuit, turned toward 12th and McGee and saw Stokes running.
The officer’s assignment with the Police Department at the time was in the research and development division. He was in uniform that night as part of Chief Darryl Forté’s initiative requiring officers not normally on patrol to spend several shifts a year policing “hot spots,” which are high crime or high activity areas.
Officers with desk jobs undergo regular training to keep their street skills sharp, said Capt. Tye Grant, a police spokesman. “Every officer in the department is first and foremost a street officer,” he said.
The police version of events has Stokes running with a gun in his right hand and refusing the officer’s commands to drop the gun and “show your hands.” In this version, Stokes opened the driver’s door of the Monte Carlo, presumably dropping in the gun, then closed the door and moved in the direction of several approaching officers. The officer behind Stokes, believing he was still armed, fired his service weapon.
Three young women who knew Stokes and Cann told police and a Kansas City Star reporter in the days after the shooting they’d seen Stokes running with a gun. But they said they saw him throw the gun underneath a parked car.
That scenario more accurately applies to Cann, who was running with a gun he didn’t legally own. He slid it under a parked car before being arrested. Cann later received probation on a weapons offense.
Other witnesses who gave statements to police said they didn’t see Stokes with a gun, although some added they hadn’t gotten a clear look.
The person who disputes the police scenario most resolutely is Stokes’ friend, Outley. Both young men were Southeast High School graduates who had jobs and no criminal records.
Outley insists Stokes didn’t touch a gun that night. “Not just my gun, any gun,” he told me.
The Police Department sees the shooting as the case of an officer compelled to make a split-second decision when confronted with a young man on the run, resisting calls to stop and drop a gun. The Board of Police Commissioners even presented the officer with a commendation some months after the shooting, saying he had “ended the threat to all officers involved.”
Grant, the police spokesman, said the shooting had been thoroughly investigated, and all information had been presented to the Jackson County prosecutor. The officer’s account is corroborated by witnesses, he said.
But for Stokes’ family and friends, the shooting remains an open wound. The idea that Stokes would threaten police belies his upbringing and character, they say. Their scenario has him running to get to the car and retrieve his friend. They wonder whether he had time to comprehend that the commands shouted by officers were meant for him.
They also wonder how the officer could have processed Stokes as a threat so quickly; another officer had only confirmed the location of the foot pursuit four seconds before the shooting, and the entire communication about the pursuit lasted 25 seconds.
Another legitimate question is why officers engaged in an all-out pursuit over a flimsy allegation of a stolen cellphone.
To some police officials, those questions, coming two years after the shooting, are hostile and inflammatory. But they aren’t. More understanding of the anatomy of any police shooting is of benefit to police and the public.
Police will tell you it’s nearly impossible for the public to comprehend the position of an officer who believes an armed suspect is threatening himself, other officers or the public. They’re right about that.
Stokes’ family, and plenty of other citizens, will say that police are too quick to use deadly force, especially against young black men.
It’s difficult at this point to expect that more clarity will come from this case. Grand jury proceedings take place in secret. A wrongful death lawsuit remains a possibility but may be a hard sell, pitting the word of police officers against the insistence of Outley and others that Stokes wasn’t carrying a gun.
What is certain is that the death of Ryan Stokes is an unexplained tragedy for his family, friends and a community, That’s why the quest for answers continues.
More about Ryan Stokes
For more on this case, go to www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/barbara-shelly/article28453009.html.