The decision by the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners to rescind a certificate of commendation awarded to two officers involved in the 2013 fatal shooting of Ryan Stokes was the first step in admitting wrongdoing.
But it should not be the Kansas City Police Department’s last act of contrition.
The agency should settle the federal lawsuit Stokes’ family filed in connection with his death at the hands of Officer William Thompson.
A public apology is also warranted. And the department should improve its use-of-force training for officers, implement body cameras and improve transparency in officer-involved shootings and other on-duty incidents to build trust in the community.
Stokes left behind an infant daughter. His family deserves closure and compensation.
Narene Stokes-James, Ryan Stokes’ mother, has long contended that police officials lied about the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. And police officials provided conflicting reports about the deadly incident.
Incredibly, the Board of Police Commissioners gave Thompson and his partner, Officer Tamara Jones, certificates of commendation after the shooting. The commendation stated that Stokes was armed with a gun and pointed it at pursuing officers.
However, investigators concluded that Stokes had put the gun in a car just before he was shot.
This week, the board rescinded the award after deciding it included inaccurate language describing the shooting.
It was a small but monumental admission.
“Today the police department has taken the first step to admitting they lied about my son,” Stokes-James said in a statement. “(Officer) Thompson shot my unarmed son in the back and his actions can never be justified.”
Cynthia Short, an attorney for Stokes-James, was unequivocal when asked about the incident. The police flat-out lied, she said.
“From the very first moment that they had an opportunity to speak to this community, they have been telling lies about what happened there that night and lies about Ryan,” Short told The Star.
But Nathan Garrett, the police board’s president, said stripping away the award would not affect the federal case. The shooting, he said, will be litigated in court. And maybe that is the proper venue. But settling the case with Stokes’ family would send an important message, providing a measure of accountability in a case where that has been sorely lacking.
After all, a grand jury declined to indict Thompson, and no recommendations for improved training or changes to department policy were made after an internal review of the incident. There were no consequences when officers fatally shot an unarmed man. And that’s just wrong.
The law unquestionably favors police officers involved in on-duty shootings. And officers should have added legal protections. But there are limits. And Thompson should be held accountable for his actions that night.
The police board still could do the right thing and settle with Stokes’ family and offer his mother, daughter and other loved ones a public apology for painting him as a dangerous criminal.