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Putting Kansas City police shootings under the spotlight

Twelve years ago, a Denver police officer shot to death a developmentally disabled teenager holding a kitchen knife in his living room.

Public outrage prompted city officials to establish an independent monitor’s office two years later to oversee law enforcement and investigate officer-involved shootings.

It’s a form of civilian oversight of police, which protesters have been clamoring for across the country following fatal shootings in Ferguson, Mo.; Chicago and Cleveland. Police departments accused of wrongful shootings should not investigate their own, protesters argue.

Since 2005, Kansas City police have been involved in 47 fatal shootings, or about four a year, according to an analysis by The Star, which began compiling a database of the shootings 11 years ago.

When The Star recently compared Kansas City to 11 other cities, including larger ones like Denver and Milwaukee, it found that Kansas City had the third-most officer-involved fatal shootings per capita from 2005 through 2014. Only St. Louis and Cleveland recorded more.

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In Kansas City, those shootings are not routinely scrutinized by any independent monitor.

[Explore the data: See The Star’s analysis of 47 fatal police-involved shootings, with details of each death.]

The Office of Community Complaints, which handles citizen grievances against officers, relies on Kansas City police internal affairs investigators to gather facts. Since it opened 45 years ago, the office never has examined an officer-involved shooting.

It doesn’t have the power.

Instead, police and prosecutors almost always control investigations from the sound of the gunshots until the case is closed. A grand jury may hear a case, but the influence of police and prosecutors over that process is in dispute.

In some other cities, independent monitors probe officer-involved shootings and tell the public what they find.

“These shootings tend to be very emotional, and it’s helpful to have someone who is objective watch over those things,” said Nicholas Mitchell, Denver’s current independent monitor. “The monitor is an answer to the idea that police shouldn’t be policing themselves.”

The Star’s analysis showed most of the people killed by Kansas City police were armed, but a few were not. Nearly 60 percent were black — in a city that is 30 percent black — and most were killed by white officers.

Police Chief Darryl Forté, who is black, said all of his officers acted to protect themselves, the lives of other officers or, in some cases, civilians.

Prosecutors have not filed charges in any of the cases, and grand juries have not indicted any of the 79 officers involved.

But some relatives of those killed question whether their loved ones had to die. Since 2005, family members have filed at least nine lawsuits against police alleging wrongful death. Two are still pending. All the others were either dismissed or won by police in court.

Nationwide, witnesses and other evidence show that most of the time, officers face a clear and present danger when they shoot at people.

Yet growing numbers of questionable shootings — including some captured on video — have eroded public trust in law enforcement and intensified fears, especially in minority communities, that officers are too quick to pull the trigger.

One such case cost a police superintendent his job in Chicago in December, after the department released long-requested video of an officer shooting a teen 16 times as the teen walked away in 2014. Even after the teen fell to the ground, the officer kept firing. Now the officer faces a murder charge.

The recent concerns have spurred interest in civilian oversight of police, said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Forté, who has researched independent monitors, said he sees merit in civilian oversight as long as the monitor is properly trained and remains unbiased toward everyone, including law enforcement.

“I think it is something that could actually be beneficial to Kansas City, done the right way with the right monitors and the right guidelines,” he said. “I am certainly not opposed to any change in practice that has the potential to build trust between the police and the other segments of the community.”

The five-member Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department, has the power to establish such an agency. It also controls the Office of Community Complaints.

But board president Michael C. Rader says he does not think the department needs more oversight. The FBI can review officer-involved shootings, he points out. And there has been no public demand here for something more.

“If the Kansas City community calls for an organization such as the Office of Community Complaints to expand their duties to investigating officer-involved shootings, we’ll consider it,” he said. “But I don’t think that is necessary at this time.”

One shooting, two views

Two years after a Kansas City police officer fatally shot a young father near the Power & Light District, more than 100 people gathered outside City Hall carrying signs, candles and burning questions.

Some said 24-year-old Ryan Stokes did not deserve to be killed by police in July 2013. He was unarmed when he died.

Up the street at police headquarters, commanders considered the case long closed. They had given the officer a commendation. A grand jury had declined to indict. And a police shooting panel that reviewed the incident made no recommendations for training or department policy changes.

In their minds, the shooting had been justified. The officer said he saw a gun in Stokes’ hand, although none was found next to his body.

The case illustrates how one emotionally charged event can prompt vastly differing perspectives of what happened, especially when no video exists.

An independent monitor might help narrow disparate views by conducting an investigation separate from the police department and legal system, proponents of that system say.

The Stokes case, with protests involving hundreds of people in Kansas City, drew more attention than most of the 47 officer-involved shootings reviewed by The Star.

But other people also have questioned police actions. One family believes officers unnecessarily antagonized an emotionally disturbed woman who had a gun when they entered her bedroom and shut off her gospel music. Another said an officer was too quick to shoot a man found outside a vacant house.

Then there’s the February 2010 shooting of 18-year-old Blake Bowman, a suspect in an armed carjacking who got into a standoff with police at his mother’s home. According to police, Bowman came out holding a knife to his mother’s throat and refused to drop it. Multiple police officers said they saw the knife. A tactical officer fired one shot to save the hostage.

But Bowman’s mother, Martha Suber, remembers it differently. Her son was very agitated that a SWAT team had surrounded the home, but he had no weapon, she told The Star.

“He was just weeping, so I said, ‘Stand behind me and we’re going to go out and we’re going to take care of this, Blake.’ I took one step out the back door, and that’s when he got shot down. … They shot him down like a dog.”

In the Stokes case, a foot chase began after someone reported a cellphone had been stolen about 3 a.m. in the Power & Light District. Officers chased Stokes and a friend around a corner and into a parking lot being patrolled by Officer William Thompson.

Thompson told investigators he saw a gun in Stokes’ hand before Stokes ran to a car and opened and closed the door without getting in, records show. Thompson said he ordered Stokes to “drop the gun” and repeatedly said, “Show me your hands.” Fearing Stokes could shoot other officers, Thompson fired. Two bullets hit Stokes.

Then Thompson saw that Stokes was unarmed. He opened the door of the nearby car and found a handgun on the driver’s seat.

Back then, witnesses told a Star reporter than Stokes did have a gun that night but never would have aimed it at police.

Today, Stokes’ family and others say they don’t believe he was carrying one.

“When I first heard it … I went numb. Shock, mental and physical,” said Stokes’ mother, Narene Stokes-James. “What I really want is for people to hear us and stand up and speak out for Ryan.”

Cynthia Short, an attorney working with the family, believes that the gun was in the car the whole time and that Thompson, who is biracial, pulled the trigger too fast when he saw a young black man running.

Having someone independent from law enforcement look into the shooting could have helped, Short said.

“We desperately need independence. … It’s just part of human nature to protect the group that we find ourselves in. I don’t think it’s very fair to ask the police to police themselves.”

By the numbers

Circumstances surrounding Kansas City’s fatal shootings have ranged from the bizarre to the banal to the tragic.

A bank robber trying to escape capture threatened to kill pursuing officers before reaching into his waistband, though he had no gun.

A man who had slammed an SUV into a tree pulled a gun on arriving officers and began firing.

A woman standing in her yard during a nighttime rain pointed a shotgun — later determined to be unloaded — at officers.

Police killed them all. During a months-long examination of the Police Department’s 47 fatal shootings since 2005, The Star found:

▪ In 35 cases, police killed someone who had a gun — or who police believed had a gun. In 15 of those, the suspect fired first, police said. Six of the guns were unloaded or not lethal.

▪ In eight cases, the person wielded a knife, machete or other sharp object. One person threatened police with a hand grenade that turned out to be inert.

▪ In at least four cases, officers first tried nonlethal force, such as a stun gun, a rubber bullet or a bean bag.

▪ About half the confrontations involved someone suffering from mental illness or depression or someone suspected of being impaired by drugs or alcohol.

Kansas City also had a higher number of nonfatal police shootings than many larger cities, with at least 56 people who were shot but survived since 2005.

In fatal shootings, 86 percent of the officers involved were white on a police force that is about 77 percent white.

“The evidence is bearing out that if you are black, if you are poor … then you are more susceptible and more likely to be shot by a police officer,” said Vernon Howard Jr., a pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.

Howard said that he viewed the problem as systemic but that he still supported Kansas City police and Forté, who defended the department.

“If you look at the people we shot … they dictated how we responded to them,” said Forté. “It’s not a black-white deal.”

The Star’s examination of the fatal shootings found that the officers’ time on the job ranged from eight months to nearly 28 years.

Seven were involved in two shootings each.

The overall tally — 47 deaths in 11 years — alarmed some community leaders.

“It’s just too many,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of More2, a Kansas City interfaith social justice organization. “It more than gives me pause; it really makes me upset. … Something better has to happen.”

How investigations unfold

In Kansas City, police control investigations of officer-involved shootings from the moment the yellow crime-scene tape goes up.

Officers guard the scene, detain witnesses and shoo away gawkers. A detective squad takes command, directed by the head of the homicide unit. Forensic technicians from the police crime lab take photographs and collect blood samples, among other tasks.

Medical workers are among the few nonpolice personnel allowed inside the tape. Officials from internal affairs and the prosecutor’s office respond to the scene but normally don’t begin investigating until detectives finish.

In theory, the officer who fired the fatal shots is a possible criminal suspect.

However, police officers cannot give formal statements to investigators until they get permission from a supervisor, according to department policy. The police union’s labor agreement also stipulates that investigators can — but not must — wait 48 hours before taking that statement, said Maj. Steve Young, who is Forté’s executive officer.

After detectives finish investigating, internal affairs can probe any violations of department rules. An internal review panel including senior police officials convenes to look at the investigation and make any recommendations for training and policy.

If a civil rights violation is alleged, the FBI and U.S. attorney will pursue it. Cooperation with federal investigators is assumed before an officer-involved shooting happens, U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson and local officials announced in December.

But since prosecutors, federal officials and police rely on one another to catch and prosecute criminals, they may be biased in favor of police officers, critics say.

Independent oversight has the potential to rebuild trust with citizens and prompt policy changes that may lower the likelihood of an unnecessary shooting, said Joseph De Angelis, a University of Idaho criminologist who has worked in an oversight agency.

“It’s a pretty powerful tool, to have people watch over these things who can give free and candid advice,” De Angelis said. “And it can save the police department from itself, in a sense.”

Grand juries

After detectives investigate, the case goes to the local prosecutor, who decides whether to file charges.

For decades in Jackson County, prosecutors took every fatal officer-involved shooting to a grand jury, letting civilians judge the facts and determine if charges were warranted.

But state law requires grand jury proceedings to remain secret. That is one reason some prosecutors and experts say grand juries may not be the best answer for more accountability in police shootings.

“What my grand jury system can’t do — in this point in time what is so important — is offer people transparency,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Baker changed office policy in 2011 and now decides on a case-by-case basis whether to involve a grand jury. She has declined to send four of the 14 cases that came since she was appointed.

She said she changed the policy to allow public explanation in cases that do not merit charges. In those cases, she sends a letter to Forté. She said those letters are public record.

But they are not posted publicly online, as are similar letters issued by Denver’s district attorney. The Star obtained two of Baker’s letters to Forté on fatal police shootings, but only after asking for them.

After the August 2014 shooting death of Eugene Turner III, Baker found the police were justified.

“Mr. Turner began firing a 9mm Luger at the officers in a residential neighborhood,” she wrote. “(Redacted) and (redacted) were immediately thrust into a life threatening scenario by the actions of Mr. Turner, therefore, they returned fire until Mr. Turner stopped firing his weapon.”

Of Kansas City’s 47 fatal police shootings since 2005, 33 went to Jackson County grand juries, all of which declined to indict. Two recent cases could be sent to a grand jury. Eight occurred in other jurisdictions, where prosecutors did not file charges.

Across the country, grand juries have been criticized as favoring police in such cases. Earlier this year, California banned the use of grand juries in deciding charges of excessive and deadly force by officers.

In Cleveland, a grand jury decided Monday not to indict a police officer in the 2014 shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Tamir’s family issued a statement questioning the prosecutor’s decision to hire use-of-force experts to tell the grand jury that the officer’s actions were reasonable. The family also said the prosecutor allowed the officers to read prepared statements to the grand jury without being subjected to cross-examination.

In Jackson County, prosecutors for years have brought police officials to grand juries to testify about officer training and the use of force.

These sessions recently have been led by Capt. Tye Grant, who also serves as the Kansas City Police Department’s chief spokesman. Grant has taken jurors to the police academy for virtual reality shooting exercises that put them in the shoes of an officer.

“I am not aware of any officer even having to formally testify in front of the grand jury,” Grant was quoted in a 2013 police consultant’s newsletter. “The jurors simply bring the officers in to tell them thank you for their service, give them a round of applause and sometimes a hug, and tell them they hope the officers never have to go through a shooting again.”

Short, the attorney for the Stokes family, said she opposed the practice as unfairly swaying jurors. “Obviously, their objectivity is compromised.”

Baker said she did not believe the grand jury was unduly tilted in favor of police.

Scrutiny in Denver

In 2003, Paul Childs stood alone in his living room holding a kitchen knife.

Fifteen years old and developmentally disabled, the Denver teenager had menaced his mother with the knife during a family disturbance at their home. His sister called 911.

As family members stood outside, an officer at the front door shot Paul, who was black, four times. The officer, who was white, said he felt threatened.

The shooting angered many in the community during what became a crisis year for the department, as Denver police shot and killed eight people, the most in a decade.

Denver established the voter-approved Office of the Independent Monitor in 2005. Today it employs 14 people and operates on a $1.27 million annual budget. The staff includes attorneys, former prosecutors, criminologists and statisticians who receive ongoing training in the field of civilian oversight.

The monitor responds to all officer-involved shooting scenes and observes the police investigation. A monitor hears witness accounts and watches evidence collection. Eventually the monitor’s findings are made public online.

Over the next years, the monitor’s reports prompted changes in training, policy and discipline. Police shootings declined. In the 10 years before the monitor, Denver police had shot 66 people, killing 36. In the next 10 years, they shot 61 people and killed 30. Still, none of the shootings resulted in charges against officers.

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Ten other cities maintain similar offices, and about 200 smaller oversight agencies exist across the country. In addition, Cleveland and Albuquerque, N.M., are among the cities monitored under consent decrees with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Virtually no two cities approach police oversight the same way.

New York and Los Angeles maintain complex structures with multiple agencies.

San Francisco and Washington, D.C., agencies carry out their own investigations.

In Texas, Austin’s police monitor observes police investigations and takes complaints. In San Jose, Calif., an independent auditor usually reviews investigations once they are complete.

In Kansas, Olathe’s Citizens Police Advisory Council is typical of the citizen review boards found in dozens of smaller cities. The council, appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council, acts as a liaison with the Police Department and the community, said Olathe Police Chief Steven Menke.

Cities should not wait for a major problem before considering or revamping civilian oversight, said Constantin Severe, director of the Independent Police Review Division in Portland, Ore.

“The unfortunate thing about changes to accountability systems is they generally happen in moments of crisis,” Severe said. “You don’t want to wait until a tragedy happens to have this conversation, when it’s the worst possible time to have this conversation.”

Even monitors entrusted with broad powers over their police departments can run into trouble.

Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, tasked with investigating officer-involved shootings, faced criticism after a supervisor sued the agency in September, saying its chief ordered him to change his conclusions in six cases in which he found officers wrongly shot citizens. The head of the agency resigned in December after video of a controversial shooting was released.

When Denver established its monitor in 2005, police reacted with “extraordinary defensiveness,” recalled that first monitor, Richard Rosenthal. Officers and supervisors did not want to talk about shootings.

“You know, they didn’t get up in the morning wanting to shoot this guy,” he said. “In order to live with it, they needed to believe that they did everything they could to save this guy.

“We were slowly able to get the message through,” Rosenthal said. “Human life is sacred.”

No criminal charges against police officers have come from shootings under the Denver monitor’s watch.

But that’s not the agency’s role. Experts and monitors offer a counterpoint to an either/or view of police shootings that would say any shooting that can’t be proved criminal must be entirely appropriate.

Instead, they say, independent oversight can go beyond the limits of criminal law, helping identify mistakes and make corrections to prevent unjustified shootings. A monitor can look at the big picture, rather than merely respond to individual complaints.

In Denver, the monitor has made a difference, said Alvertis Simmons, a 58-year-old Denver civil rights activist.

“Back then, they were shooting people and killing them and getting away with it,” Simmons said. “And they still are. But they’ve got more eyes on them now.”

For more details about the 47 fatal police-involved shootings, see the companion pieces to this story:

[By the numbers: Take a closer look at how the shooting data was assembled and what it means.]

[Mental health: Read about Kansas Citians whose mental health crises ended in tragedy.]

[Costly lawsuits: In the 1990s, police paid for the fatal actions of officers in two cases.]

[See the whole story at a glance]

Ian Cummings: 816-234-4633, @Ian__Cummings

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

Officers of the Kansas City Police Department have killed 47 people since 2005, when The Kansas City Star began collecting data. The newspaper’s analysis shows:

▪ In 35 cases, police killed someone who had a gun, or whom police believed had a gun. In 15 of those, the suspect fired first, police said.

▪ In 8 cases, the person wielded a knife or other sharp object.

▪ In at least 4 cases, officers first tried nonlethal force.

▪ About half the confrontations involved mental illness, drugs or alcohol.

▪ Sixty percent of the people killed were black. Eighty-six percent of the police officers involved were white.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

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