The Kansas City Police Department has suspended two sergeants and seven detectives as part of an internal investigation into the department’s crimes against children unit, the department announced Thursday.
Police said the investigation began after police officials learned that cases were not being handled promptly enough according to department policies and public expectations.
The crimes against children unit investigates cases involving children 16 and younger who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, endangerment, parental kidnappings and custody violations. Its eight detectives handled about 1,000 cases in 2015, police said.
Other detectives are continuing to investigate the unit’s handling of cases. Meanwhile, a commander and a sergeant with experience investigating crimes against children have temporarily been assigned to help the remaining detective work the unit’s cases.
“It is important that we do all that we can for all victims, especially those who can not speak for themselves,” said Police Chief Darryl Forté, who said he learned about possible case mismanagement issues in October and began to make inquiries.
Commanders have put some changes in place and others are expected. An audit committee has been formed to examine case handling and other practices.
Those suspended will continue to be paid during the internal investigation, said Capt. Tye Grant, a police spokesman. He said he could not recall the last time a large number officers were suspended at one time.
In a written statement defending the suspended detectives and sergeants, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99 said it “unequivocally supports” the nine officers.
“The FOP is confident that after a full investigation the record will reflect that these officers performed their duties satisfactorily and that any perceived delays in concluding particular investigations, which are inevitable in the overloaded criminal justice system, were attributable to the unit’s high case load and low manpower,” the statement said.
During its investigations, the unit works with state social workers and others. Officers can remove children from a home and place them into protective custody. Crimes against children investigators consult with social workers on where best to place a child.
They also investigate the criminal allegations and eventually present a case file to prosecutors, who determine whether criminal charges will be filed.
Grant said there had been a delay getting some cases to prosecutors, and the delay was inconsistent with department policies.
In a statement about the investigation, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said protecting children was her highest priority.
“All those responsible for the welfare of our kids must examine where we come up short,” Bakers said. “In the end, our community must have absolute confidence that all of us — especially police and prosecutors — are doing everything possible, as quickly as possible, to protect our children from harm.”
Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said the agency was gathering more information about the investigation.
News of the suspensions alarmed some who work with abused children.
Emily van Schenkhof, of Missouri KidsFirst, said she had heard of some problems with the department’s child abuse investigations, but was under the impression that they involved staffing needs. She said she knew Kansas City’s detectives to be hardworking and was shocked that so many were suspended.
“It was my understanding that there were some issues in the Kansas City Police Department, but it was my understanding that those issues were being addressed,” van Schenkhof said. “Kansas City has a good reputation across the state for being tough on child abuse cases.”
Lori Ross, CEO of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, called the investigation into the police unit “very frightening.”
“These kids are, you know, defenseless,” said Ross, who also is a co-chairwoman of the Missouri Task Force on Children’s Justice, which reviews investigative, administrative and judicial handling of child abuse across the state.
“They count on the adults to respond and vigorously pursue these cases,” Ross said. “So if folks are not getting these things done, what does that say about abused kids in our community?”
Others were less surprised.
Lori Burns-Bucklew, also of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, has spent much of her career representing Kansas City children and families in family court. She said delays in criminal investigations of child abuse were familiar in her experience.
Such cases often aren’t treated with the urgency they deserve, Burns-Bucklew said.
“Everyone likes to talk about child safety when some big, nasty event occurs,” she said. “But when it comes to devoting resources to them on a daily basis, it doesn’t get the attention.”