After an Independence officer on Feb. 4 fatally shot a man who had leveled a handgun at police, a little-known “use of force” committee led by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker reviewed the incident.
Then — in a departure from past secrecy in such cases — Baker explained the committee’s findings in a nine-page letter. It offered a detailed narrative of the case, photographs, legal analysis and her conclusion: The officer’s use of deadly force had been justified.
And then, this summer, she posted the letter to her department’s website for all to see.
Baker has become more outspoken recently about ramping up transparency in the handling of police use of force. She created the use of force committee in 2012 but now wants to call more attention to it. She said posting the letters, which only began last year, was one way to do that.
“The stakes here for the safety and harmony of our communities are enormous,” Baker said just days after fatal police shootings in Tulsa, Okla., and Charlotte, N.C. “We must strive to learn from past events in order to be as prepared as we can be for whatever the future may hold.”
Some community groups remain skeptical about Baker’s effort. They doubt the committee is enhancing public trust and further promoting transparency, noting that no homicide charges have been filed in fatal police shootings under her review process.
“There are statutes in Missouri, and in most states, that require very different standards for investigations and prosecution of officer involved shootings. We know that these need to change,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of More2, an interfaith social advocacy group.
“The new process, instituted months ago by our prosecutor and other government departments, has not yet resulted in any (state) prosecution. Therefore, we have questions about whether this is a meaningful change.”
Baker is often the first to say that she is limited to acting on what is criminal and can be proved so in court. Police have been skeptical, too, she said, but no system can be perfect.
Baker argued that transparency was central to her decision to change a longstanding policy that sent all fatal police shootings to a grand jury, where proceedings are secret by Missouri law and police officers often had a say in preparing jurors.
In the interview with The Star, she called the use of force committee her best solution so far in an effort to show the public that police officers’ actions are being put under a microscope.
She is also working with a national committee of prosecutors to devise best practices for reviewing such cases and holding wrongful police accountable.
The use of force committee here, which includes a retired circuit court judge, senior-level assistant prosecutors and Baker, can recommend criminal charges against a police officer in cases of excessive force.
In her letter on the Feb. 4 fatal shooting by Independence police, Baker wrote:
“While the death of Scott Harless is a tragedy for his family and our community, that tragedy does not warrant the filing of charges against an officer that acted within the limits contained in the law,” Baker concluded in the letter explaining her decision to Independence Police Chief Brad Halsey.
Since 2012, Baker’s committee here has taken up more than two dozen cases. It has reviewed 13 incidents since last October.
In three cases, charges arose from the committee’s work.
Those included a Kansas City police officer who kneed a man in the back, beat him in the ribs and made threats him and an assault charge against another Kansas City officer who punched a subdued suspect several times in the face.
The third case dealt with an Independence police officer who was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office on civil rights violations for nearly killing a teen driver with a stun gun. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
Baker asks police leaders to refer to the committee any incident of unusual violence that they become aware of, and she believes they are doing so. Those cases would include, she said, any incident causing significant injury to a citizen and anything that — if judged as wrongful use of force — could be considered third-degree assault or worse.
Baker already responds to all fatal police shootings and if she is not available, a senior-level assistant prosecutor is summoned to the scene in her place. Prosecutors immediately contact the victims’ family and explain the role their office will have in the investigation.
In the February incident, Harless allegedly disobeyed repeated demands from officers to drop his weapon after he fled a traffic stop. Baker wrote that the officer had a legal right to defend himself against an armed assailant.
Instead of sending the case to a grand jury, Baker reviewed it with her use of force committee and explained the decision in a detailed letter, which was then posted at the prosecutor’s office website.
Missouri law permits officers to use deadly force if they reasonably feel that they have to use force to defend and protect themselves from death or serious injury.
“Many people react to officer-involved incidents guided by feelings and emotion,” Baker said. “We acknowledge the strong feelings of our community members in reaction to these incidents. But our process is guided by the letter of the law.”
Police departments in Jackson County were not initially sold on the idea of her use of force committee, Baker said.
“At first the reaction was negative,” she said. “But after training on the process and the law that governs our decisions, they became somewhat receptive to the idea, though I think it is fair to say that they remain skeptical.”
Police departments and other law enforcement agencies in Jackson County already use various internal review efforts to help them evaluate how officers conduct themselves when placed in perilous situations.
“We welcome another level of oversight to enhance community trust,” said Capt. Stacey Graves, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Police Department.
Some in law enforcement have asked to be heard before a decision is made, but Baker said she doesn’t allow departments to advocate on behalf of their officers.
“We stick to the evidence and the law rather than advocacy from any party, community members or law enforcement,” she said.
Some community activists in Kansas City have called for independent investigations of police shootings, which are now investigated by the police department itself. As The Star noted in a recent project reviewing 47 police shootings that occurred from 2005 through 2015, the citizens oversight agency charged with investigating complaints about police actions lacks the power to probe shootings.
Kansas City officers are encouraged to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. But family members of some people shot and killed by Kansas City police have continued to argue that their relatives should not have died and have pressed their claims in court.
In July, a jury awarded $680,734.18 to the son of a 55-year-old woman shot and killed in February 2007 at home by Kansas City police. The shooting came well before Baker’s committee was formed and so has not been reviewed by it.
Also in July of this year, the mother of Ryan Stokes filed a federal lawsuit against the governing board of the police department seeking unspecified damages. The prosecutor’s use of force committee in 2013 reviewed the shooting and presented the case to a grand jury, a secretive process Baker stopped using after the controversial shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
In May 2014, Damian Words, a store clerk, felt that a Kansas City police officer was out of line in using a stun gun on him during a dispute over an illegally parked car.
Internal affairs investigated the incident and presented the findings to police officials, who determined that the decision made by Officer Dale Secor to use the stun gun did not violate department policy. Nevertheless, when Words sued, the department settled the case for $98,750.
That matter was handled in civil court. After a Star reporter inquired about the Words case, Baker said her office would review the incident to determine if the officer’s use of force was justified.
“Our system for handling police use of force incidents must inspire the entire community’s confidence that these cases are getting a fair analysis, and that prosecutors will bring charges when merited,” Baker said.