In September 2013, 12 Jackson County citizens decided there was insufficient evidence to conclude that a Kansas City police officer had broken any Missouri law when he fatally shot 24-year-old Ryan Stokes two months earlier in a downtown parking lot.
Stokes, a 24-year-old black man with no criminal record, was unarmed when he was shot. Police asserted he’d dumped a gun a few seconds before. His family and friends dispute that and say his death makes no sense.
But the grand jury’s decision was almost a foregone conclusion.
As we learned from Ferguson and other high-profile police-involved deaths, indictments of police officers are rare to begin with, and Missouri statutes give wide latitude to self-defense claims.
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Those advantages are formidable. But the Kansas City officer may have had something else working in his favor.
In Jackson County, grand jurors who will be considering officer-involved shootings routinely spend several hours at the Regional Training Academy. There, Kansas City Police Capt. Tye Grant talks with them about police shootings from the perspective of officers.
Grant is sworn in as a subject expert, but he doesn’t discuss the particulars of a case that will be coming before the jury. He talks generically about the training police receive, situations they may face and the need to make split-second decisions.
As part of the training, jurors get 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.
The sessions have taken place for years and under the supervision of several prosecutors. Grant, who is currently the police department’s media spokesman, inherited the training role in 2006.
The Police Department’s newsletter, Informant, discussed Grant’s work in its March 2013 edition.
“By the time his session is over, (jurors) are armed with enough information and experience to come to a more informed conclusion,” the article said. “What they could have perceived as an unnecessary use of an officer’s weapon they now see in a different, more realistic light.”
That’s great for the police. Not so great for the cause of fairness.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing and it seems like they’re preparing the grand jurors to be very pro law enforcement,” said Philip Stinson, a former police officer and a lawyer who is on the criminal justice faculty at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.
Pat Peters, a Kansas City defense lawyer and former assistant prosecutor, said he was appalled. Like some other criminal lawyers I spoke with, he said he knew nothing about the sessions before now.
“It strikes me as so outrageous that I’m really surprised a member of the grand jury has never complained about this,” Peters said. “You’re supposed to be an independent body. This makes you think that you’ve got a special connection with the police.”
That’s exactly right. I’ve used the simulator, and it is seductive. One comes away awed by the risks of police work.
Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said the sessions were part of a more general orientation to help grand jurors do their jobs. She objected to a characterization of them as pro-police.
“These comments show ignorance of what is actually presented to the grand jury,” she said in an email. “The grand jury receives general training information at the beginning of its six-month term. This comes after (jurors) swear, under oath, to … never to be influenced by ‘love, fear, favor or affection.’ My personal experience with grand jurors is that they take very seriously their oath and duty.”
I think Baker is scrupulous about integrity. But she should dump this arrangement. Police shouldn’t get an early audience with a grand jury that will be looking at a police shooting.
Read other columns about the Ryan Stokes shooting at kansascity.com/opinion.