Editorials

Message to young black men in KC: No dreadlocks, white T-shirts or risk going to jail

Wrongly imprisoned, KC teen sues, says police ignored evidence

A Kansas City family is suing the Kansas City Police Department after 15-year-old Tyree Bell was arrested and held for three weeks in a juvenile detention center. A lawsuit said police sat on exonerating evidence.
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A Kansas City family is suing the Kansas City Police Department after 15-year-old Tyree Bell was arrested and held for three weeks in a juvenile detention center. A lawsuit said police sat on exonerating evidence.

The message to young black men in Kansas City is clear: Don’t sport dreadlocks and a white T-shirt, or you could be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit.

At least that’s what U.S. District Judge Greg Kays and some officers in the Kansas City Police Department conveyed in an unsettling case of mistaken identity.

Kays’ decision to dismiss a federal lawsuit against Kansas City police alleging civil rights violations highlights biases and shortcomings ingrained in the criminal justice system.

In tossing the case, Kays ruled officers could reasonably believe probable cause existed to arrest then-15-year-old Tyree Bell. The judge also determined the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, a legal standing which protects government officials from being sued unless there’s a clear violation of constitutional rights.

In 2016, officers responded to a report that three black teenagers were brandishing a firearm in a south Kansas City neighborhood. One of the teens had shoulder-length dreadlocks. The teen, armed with a gun, fled on foot.

Tyree’s appearance allegedly bore some resemblance to that of the fleeing teen: Both are African American and thin. Both had dreadlocks and were wearing white T-shirts, according to police.

Tyree, though, is 6 feet, 3 inches tall. The fleeing suspect stood about five inches shorter, according to a radio call from pursuing officers. Tyree and the suspect also were wearing markedly different shorts and shoes.

“Here, the fleeing suspect and (Tyree) were physically similar: They both were black, juvenile males who had a similar height, weight, body build, hair color, hair style and hair length,” Kays wrote in a motion for summary judgment. “They also both wore unstained white t-shirts and black and red shoes.”

The inability of officers Jonathan Munyan and Peter Neukirch to differentiate between an innocent teen and a gun-wielding suspect is troubling at best. Even more shocking is the fact that a federal judge would allow police to rely on an all-black-people-look-alike-defense to dismiss a lawsuit.

Tyree sat inside a Kansas City juvenile detention facility for three weeks, accused of carrying a gun he did not own or possess and resisting arrest. Video evidence from an officer’s dashboard camera exonerated Tyree after weeks in confinement.

Pleas from Tyree’s mother, Sherri James, yielded nothing. After much prodding from James, Kansas City Police Detective John Mattivi eventually viewed the footage. Mattivi determined that Tyree was not the armed teen who ran from officers.

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

Of course, James is not the first mother to proclaim her son’s innocence. But officers had access to actual video evidence that could have quickly eliminated Tyree as a suspect. The teen had never been in trouble with authorities before.

“There was no apology offered, and there is no way to wipe away the effects of the experience on (Tyree),” Tyree’s attorney, Arthur Benson, wrote in a legal argument.

Benson plans to appeal Kays’ ruling. He correctly contends Tyree’s arrest was not a simple mistake but the result of officers’ hubris, flawed eyewitness identification, poor training and inadequate practices and procedures.

“Even if (Tyree’s) arrest was a mistake, it was not objectively reasonable,” Benson wrote. He’s right.

Kays bears some responsibility as well. Qualified immunity can be subjective. Legal remedies should be available to Tyree and others when their constitutional rights are violated. A civil jury, not Kays, should determine whether officers’ action were reasonable.

Kansas City police should take a hard look at the department’s implicit bias training and the policies that allowed officers to arrest and detain the wrong person for weeks, without repercussions.

Kansas City police and local prosecutors also should evaluate their reliance on eyewitness testimony, even from officers. Reasonable reforms could address underlying issues between officers and communities of color.

“When the public loses confidence in the police ... the public will be less likely to report crime to the police and less likely to cooperate with the police as witnesses or victims, which makes prosecution very difficult,” said Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “This sets up a dangerous cycle.”

Police work is difficult and dangerous, and understandably, mistakes do happen. But officers must be held to a high standard, and there should be consequences when egregious, indefensible errors are made.

Data shows wrongful arrests and convictions generally affect young black males such as Tyree more than any other group. Some have spent years, sometimes even decades behind bars. Tyree is fortunate in that regard. But he has panic attacks when he sees a patrol car.

The criminal justice system has failed Tyree at nearly every turn. While it may be impossible to undo the damage, Kansas City police officials could start by apologizing to the teen and by making policy changes in an effort to prevent a similar mistake in the future.

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