Kansas man’s ‘moving while black’ case awaits police commission investigation

New homeowner questioned by Tonganoxie police during early-morning move

Karle Robinson, 61, a military veteran, was moving into his new house at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday in Tonganoxie. Body camera recorded police handcuffing him while checking to see if he lived there.
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Karle Robinson, 61, a military veteran, was moving into his new house at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday in Tonganoxie. Body camera recorded police handcuffing him while checking to see if he lived there.

A black homeowner’s complaint that the Tonganoxie police chief turned him away when he tried to report racial profiling is now in the hands of a state police commission.

No timetable has been set for when a decision could come from the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, a board appointed by the governor and tasked with disciplining law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing.

But the 12-member commission, often referred to as the Kansas CPOST, has the authority to suspend, reprimand, censure, require training or revoke the certification of officers found to have acted unprofessionally while on duty.

The board has been asked by the Kansas Attorney General to examine the case of Karle Robinson, who came to national attention after he was detained by Tonganoxie police while moving into his new house at night last summer.

Robinson, a 61-year-old retired Marine who was moving from Overland Park to Tonganoxie, spent eight minutes handcuffed in front of his house after police stopped him as he carried a large-screen television inside about 2:30 a.m. on August 19.

He later complained that local police subjected him to a campaign of harassment that stopped only when his story was reported by The Star.

In a statement last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas called the episode a case of “moving while black” that demonstrated a culture of racial bias in the Tonganoxie Police Department.

The ACLU expressed particular concern that Tonganoxie Police Chief Greg Lawson apparently chose not to take an official report of Robinson’s complaint.

Robinson said he went to the Police Department to file a formal racial profiling complaint but only met 20 minutes with the police chief and a lieutenant, who both took notes. He left without anyone taking his complaint down in an official report.

“You know how someone has a slight smirk on their face, that was the kind of reception that I got,” he said.

“The same old story – another angry black man.”

After he moved in, Robinson said, police routinely followed him, parked in front of his home almost daily or repeatedly drove past his house.

The ACLU asked for an investigation by the state attorney general, who referred the case to Kansas CPost.

Robinson said he is waiting for the commission to act.

“I hope to get those cops fired, including the chief, because they kind of condoned that stuff,” Robinson said. “When I met with them I was trying to file a complaint and all they did was meet with me, so basically, I got written off.”

Investigators with Kansas CPOST will be asked to find out why Robinson wasn’t allowed to file a complaint. The commission has four retired law enforcement officers who work part-time as investigators.

Gary Steed, the executive director of Kansas CPOST, said he could not discuss any open cases or even confirm the commission is investigating a specific officer or law enforcement agency.

But he said that, in general, the commission’s investigators gather and review records and present their findings to the investigative committee, a panel of three members who decide what action, if any, should be taken against an officer’s certification.

The commission could levy disciplinary action against the police chief and the other officers involved.

“There is no deadline but we try to do them as promptly as possible,” Steed said.

Racial bias complaints

From 2012 to 2017, the commission investigated 23 bias cases, or about four a year. Steed declined to discuss specific cases.

Prior to 2012, the commission could only take certification action on officers who had felony convictions, domestic violence convictions or committed moral character violations.

In that time, the commission took action on five to six disciplinary actions a year.

In 2012 the rules were changed to allow the commission to take action based on an officer’s conduct, any misdemeanor crimes related to dishonesty, fraud, theft or abusing their authority to obtain anything of value, assaults and unprofessional conduct.

It now averages about 40 disciplinary actions of all kinds each year, Steed said.

Kansas law requires all law enforcement agencies to compile an annual report of all of the complaints of racial profiling they have received.

Those reports should contain significant details such as the number of complaints received, when they were received, action taken, the agency’s response and the disposition of the complaints.

In its report to the Kansas attorney general’s office that covered July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018, Tonganoxie police reported receiving no racial profiling complaints.

“If a police station or police department isn’t collecting this information, there is no way to track if they do have problems and if there are people complaining,” said Lauren Bonds, the interim Executive Director and Legal Director of the Kansas ACLU.

“There is a huge difference between just sitting down and taking notes versus having an actual complaint that someone could review at a later date,” Bonds said.

Kansas law does not explicitly require police agencies to accept complaints, she said. But there is a law requiring them to report what complaints they receive, which should represent an implicit requirement to take them in the first place.

In 2017, The Star found that even though the Kansas attorney general’s office collects data on racial bias complaints from almost every law enforcement agency in the state, it does not analyze the reports and no longer investigates complaints.

The reports posted on the attorney general’s website do not offer any narrative detail of complaints, nor do they list the names of officers involved or the residents who complained, the Star found.

“You could completely avoid having to comply with the statute if you just didn’t accept any,” Bonds said. “That is our concern with their obstruction of Karle filing one of these complaints.”

In Robinson’s case, as The Star reported in October, police said they had reason to suspect a crime was in progress when they saw him carrying a box outside his house at night. Police body cam video recorded the incident.

Tonganoxie Police Chief Greg Lawson, after reviewing the video, said the police acted appropriately.

Lawson did not return phone calls and emails with questions about the ACLU’s complaint and the role of Kansas CPost.

Robinson said no one from the Police Department has contacted him since his meeting with Lawson.

“I knew the minute I walked in there that nothing was going to come of it,” Robinson said. “I felt like I was wasting my time. I wanted to be on the record of filing a complaint, or trying to file a complaint.”

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.