After black homeowner is questioned by police in Kansas, ACLU asks for investigation

Seven months after a black homeowner was detained by Tonganoxie police while moving into his new house at night, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas has written a letter asking the state attorney general to investigate.

The letter describes the experience of 61-year-old Karle Robinson, who was handcuffed by Tonganoxie police while moving into his new house at 2:30 a.m. on August 19.

As The Star reported in October, police said they had reason to suspect a crime was in progress. Tonganoxie Police Chief Greg Lawson, after reviewing video of the incident, said the police acted appropriately.

But the ACLU of Kansas calls the episode a case of “moving while black” that demonstrates a culture of racial bias in the department.

The letter to Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, dated Thursday, says police subjected Robinson to “a campaign of surveillance and harassment” that only stopped when Robinson’s story became publicized.

Robinson, a military veteran who was moving from Merriam to Tonganoxie, spent eight minutes handcuffed in front of his house after police stopped him as he carried a large-screen television into his house.

According to the ACLU, Robinson tried to file a complaint in writing with the Police Department but Chief Lawson stopped him. Robinson has also complained that police routinely followed him, parked in front of his home almost daily or repeatedly drove past his home.

“Each of these incidents would be concerning had they been alleged independently,” the ACLU said in a written statement Thursday. “Together, they suggest a pervasive culture of racial bias and systemic process failure within the Tonganoxie Police Department.”

The ACLU asks the Attorney General’s office to investigate the complaint or refer it to the Kansas Commission on Officers Standards and Training, which licenses police officers in the state.

A spokesman for the attorney general said Schmidt’s office has reviewed the letter and forwarded it to the commission.

Lauren Bonds, the interim Executive Director and Legal Director of the state ACLU, said in a written statement that Chief Lawson’s conduct “raises particularly serious concerns.”

“Mr. Robinson believes his detention was motivated by his race rather than reasonable suspicion that he was committing burglary,” Bonds said. “It also appears that the Chief of Police prevented Mr. Robinson from filing a credible, legitimate complaint and that is not in compliance with reporting and intake standards.

“He must not interfere with citizens registering complaints.”

Even if Chief Lawson ultimately declined to investigate the matter, Bonds said, Robinson wanted to establish a formal, written record detailing his experience.

The ACLU says that the Police Department’s assertions about the case are “riddled with inconsistencies” and the fact that Robinson was taking boxes into his home, not removing unboxed items from it, should have suggested to a reasonable officer that no burglary was in progress.

Many of the facts police pointed to as basis for suspicion “are disproved by the body cam footage and are inconsistent with other independently verified facts,” the letter said.

The Tonganoxie Police Department did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the ACLU’s letter.

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