The mid-afternoon incident created chaos in the city’s iconic shopping district. And while police acted quickly to keep the public safe, a tweet from the department’s official Twitter page was an unacceptable misstep.
For a brief time, the police department managed to label approximately 64,000 black males in Kansas City as suspects in the shooting. That’s exactly what occurred with this tweet: “We are still looking for one more subject of interest. The only description we have right now is a black male. So we ask everyone around the area to please be aware of their surroundings. And we continue to ask those who are not already @ThePlazaKC to avoid the area.”
About 33 minutes passed before officials released a more detailed description of the suspect. Police know better than to identify an entire group of people based on generic information.
That’s simply a mistake that should never happen. Officials must do a better job of relaying information to the public going forward.
Jackson County prosecutors charged an 18-year-old African-American male with evidence tampering in the incident. The teen is accused of hiding a handgun used in the shooting.
Quinton Shelby allegedly told investigators that he was walking with a group of friends when one of them fired several shots at two men. Shelby will have his day in court. But the vague, blanket description was uncalled for.
Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Missouri executive director, correctly compared the tweet to racial profiling.
Black males are shot by police at disproportionately high rates, according to a Washington Post study. Black men aged 15–34 are between nine and 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other people, studies indicate. In 2017, police killed 19 unarmed black males.
According to researcher Charles Menifield, dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, the disproportionate killing of black men by police occurs because of the institutional and organizational racism in police departments and the criminal justice system’s targeting of minority communities with policies such as stop and frisk and the war on drugs.
Tweeting less than useful information that singles out communities of color is similarly problematic.
“A police description that fits more than 64,000 people in Kansas City is meaningless,” Mittman said. “These vague descriptions ultimately promote discriminatory policing, which is already happening at an unacceptable rate in this state.”
Understandably, police wanted to release information in real time and apprehend a dangerous shooting suspect.
“This was unfolding rapidly and having a shooter(s) on the Plaza, an area packed with citizens oblivious to danger, the Department was trying to put out what it had as quickly as it could,” said Nathan Garrett, president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
Still, the tweet was irresponsible and unhelpful.
Words have consequences. Intentional or not, every black male in the city was a suspect. History has proven interaction between police and African-American males — armed or unarmed — can be a dangerous proposition.
Garrett said it is unfortunate officials are being criticized for the tweet in light of a successful outcome. He’s hopeful internal discussions will prevent the same mistake.
Police are duty bound to protect people and property. The ultimate goal should be to protect and serve every member of the community, not cast suspicion on an entire group with a couple keystrokes.