Editorials

Filing a complaint about a KC police officer? Only a tiny fraction spur any action

Civilian oversight agencies play an important role in holding police officers accountable for misconduct and in giving voice to the community. But in Kansas City, those voices too often are silenced.

Only a tiny fraction of complaints about Kansas City police officers leads to any sort of discipline. Transparency is lacking, so the public has no way of knowing how or if a particular officer has been disciplined. And the office that handles complaints can’t investigate officer-involved shootings.

In Kansas City, the Office of Community Complaints (OCC) is the city-funded civilian oversight agency that’s tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct against Kansas City police officers.

In 2018 and 2019, the percentage of sustained complaints — meaning there was sufficient evidence to justify disciplinary action against an officer — has dropped well below the national average, raising questions about the effectiveness of the agency and the fairness of the investigative process.

Through August of this year, slightly less than 5% of 99 resolved complaints investigated by the OCC have been sustained. Three of the cases were for improper procedure; two were for improper conduct.

In 2018, the OCC investigated 127 citizens complaints returned from the Kansas City Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit. Only two of those complaints — or less than 2% — were sustained. Both were for improper conduct.

In 2017, the OCC worked 118 complaints. Eleven — or about 9% — were sustained, including five for improper procedure and four for improper conduct.

Police define improper procedure as administrative or procedural errors such as improper search and seizure, or a failure to read a suspect their Miranda rights. Improper conduct is described as unprofessional and unjustified behavior.

Police won’t say how the offending officers were disciplined. Disciplinary records are protected under the Missouri Sunshine Law and cannot be disclosed, police said.

The national average for sustained complaints is around 8%, said Samuel Walker, a nationally-known expert on police accountability.

Kansas City is not unique, but “those numbers (in 2018 and 2019) are really low,” Walker said.

Merrell Bennekin, director of Kansas City’s OCC, says a lack of cooperation from complainants contributes to the low rate of sustained findings. Citizens have to comply with every step of the investigation process.

Police officers must participate in any investigation as a condition of their employment, he said.

Of the 88 non-investigative complaints that have been resolved through mid-August, 28 of them — more than one-third — were closed due to non-cooperation.

Recently, the OCC marked 50 years of continuous operation, making it one of the longest-running civilian oversight agencies in the country. But after a half-century of investigating police abuse and misconduct, is it time to revamp the agency?

“Our model is unique in a lot of ways, but I don’t feel that it is outdated,” Bennekin said.

The OCC, though, lacks the power to independently investigate officer-involved shootings. Third-parties are not allowed to file complaints. And grievances must be filed within 90 days of an incident.

What happens if a person is arrested, can’t afford bail and is unable to file a complaint in a timely manner?

The opaqueness of the complaint process, combined with the long odds citizens face of seeing any sort of action in response to a complaint, contribute to the community’s overall lack of trust in police. In a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, fostering trust in law enforcement is an urgent imperative.

“We are in a unique position to rebuild trust with the police department and communities of color,” said John Stamm, chief of staff for Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “The OCC is just one method we can use to rebuild that trust.”

Other cities offer useful models for handling allegations of police misconduct.

In Denver, the Office of the Independent Monitor provides civilian oversight of the Denver Police Department and the sheriff’s department.

The Denver office monitors officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, in addition to ensuring that internal affairs investigations are thorough and unbiased. The agency also has the ability to publicly release its findings.

In 2018, the Office of the Independent Monitor closed 328 community complaints, with sustained findings in 12% of its investigations. The office sustained 14% of complaints filed in 2017.

Officer discipline and a detailed narrative of notable cases were listed in the agency’s publicly-available annual report, something the Kansas City Council, City Manager’s Office, Police Board and other officials should consider for the OCC.

In Kansas City, police rarely release the names of officers involved in use of force incidents. The quick release of names and video footage would be a good step toward transparency, Walker says.

“Transparency is the basic gospel of police these days,” he said. “But they can’t do it alone. They depend on citizens’ compliance. They have to be willing to regain that trust.”

Kansas City police and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office investigate use of force incidents here, posting their findings on the prosecutor’s website after the inquiries are closed.

But Kansas City is still falling far short when it comes to transparency and effective oversight of law enforcement. After 50 years, the Office of Community Complaints is overdue for an overhaul.

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