Crime

Judge throws out case of black KC teen wrongfully imprisoned by white police officers

A federal judge has dismissed the lawsuit brought by the family of Tyree Bell, a black teenager who was placed in juvenile jail by white Kansas City police officers for three weeks, though they possessed proof of his innocence.

The family’s attorney said this week that they are appealing the ruling.

U.S. District Judge Greg Kays ruled last month that the officers were entitled to “qualified immunity,” which protects government officials from being sued unless there is a clear violation of constitutional rights.

Tyree’s mother, Sherri James, had sued the police department in 2017 for unlawful arrest, negligent training and supervision and deprivation of Tyree’s constitutional rights.

On a June 2016 afternoon, Officers Jonathan Munyan and Peter Neukirch responded to a report of three black teenagers brandishing a firearm at 91st Street and Marsh Avenue. One of the teens, wearing a white shirt and black shorts, and with shoulder-length dreadlocks, took off a pair of flip-flops and fled on foot, with Munyan in pursuit. Footage obtained by The Star shows the teen throwing a gun over a fence while running away.

Less than 10 minutes later and more than a mile away, another officer found then-15-year-old Tyree walking down 87th Street.

In some ways, Tyree matched the fleeing teen — both were black and thin with dreadlocks and were wearing white T-shirts. Tyree, however, was 6 feet 3 inches (5 inches taller than the height Munyan originally radioed in to surrounding officers), wore sneakers and blue shorts with a thick white stripe, and showed no signs of having run a sub-seven-minute mile in near 90 degree heat.

Tyree was arrested that day and spent three weeks in the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center until, after multiple requests from Tyree’s mother, Detective John Mattivi viewed dashcam footage and determined that Tyree was not the teenager who had fled.

In his summary judgment, Kays stated that the doctrine of qualified immunity “allows officers to make reasonable errors” and that Munyan, Neukirch, Mattivi and the police department acted within their rights and with probable cause.

“The fleeing suspect and Plaintiff were physically similar: they both were black, juvenile males who had a similar height, weight, body build, hair color, hair style, and hair length,” the judge wrote. “They also both wore unstained white t-shirts and black and red shoes.”

Though Tyree and the suspect had different shoes and shorts, the officer might believe that a fleeing suspect could shed clothing in an attempt to alter his appearance during a foot pursuit, the judge wrote.

Kays also ruled that Mattivi did not purposefully ignore evidence since he relied on his officers’ “multiple assurances” that dashcam footage showed Tyree to be the suspect.

Attorney Arthur Benson, who represented Tyree’s family, has already begun the appeals process and advised Tyree and his mother to no longer speak about the case.

“A prudent officer simply would not have gone through with that arrest,” Benson told The Star. “We have testimony about how cross-race eyewitnesses are fallible. The judge didn’t even mention this.”

In a motion responding to Kays’ decision, Benson mentioned the discrepancies in the description of Tyree and the suspect, the fact that Tyree showed no signs of having fled, and the decision by the officers to not ask the other teenagers whether Tyree was with them at the scene.

The next step will be handled by the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis. If an appeal is granted, Benson would once again bring Tyree’s case before Kays, likely sometime next year.

“This is a difficult case, and the Court is sympathetic to the difficulties (Tyree) faced during his arrest and detention,” Kays wrote.

“Sympathy is great,” Benson said. “But Tyree deserves more.”

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