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Judge Rules Kansas City Police Officer Used ‘Reasonable’ Deadly Force In Killing Ryan Stokes

Narene Stokes, center, talks to reporters in September 2018 when the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners rescinded a commendation to the officer who shot and killed her son, Ryan.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Narene Stokes, center, talks to reporters in September 2018 when the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners rescinded a commendation to the officer who shot and killed her son, Ryan.

A Kansas City Police officer was using “reasonable” deadly force when he shot and killed 24-year-old Ryan Stokes, despite the fact that Stokes was unarmed and obeying another officer’s commands, a federal judge has ruled.

Stokes, an African-American man who was killed near the Power & Light District on July 28, 2013, had been falsely accused of stealing a drunk white man’s cell phone and was being chased by officers when Thompson shot him two times in the back, a KCUR investigation found. In fact, Stokes was not armed and he was complying with another officer in a parking lot near the Sprint Center.

Tuesday's decision by U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes is the latest development in a long court battle pursued by Stokes’ mother, Narene, against Thompson and the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. Wimes wrote that Thompson qualified for immunity because he believed Stokes was a threat and thought Stokes had a gun, and that Stokes was being aggressive in not following his commands.

“Using the applicable factors to determine objective reasonableness, Officer Thompson believed Stokes was armed and turned to ambush the pursuing officers, and Officer Thompson discharged his weapon to protect the approaching officers,” Wimes wrote.

Narene Stokes said on Wednesday she was disappointed in and disgusted by Wimes’ decision.

“I’ll be damned if I let this system just say, ‘Oh well, we killed/murdered Ryan’ and that’s it,” she said. “What kind of judge is this? What kind of man is this?”

She and supporters from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are planning to meet to decide what steps they will take next, she said.

Stokes' attorney, Cyndy Short, said they plan to appeal, adding they were “so, so disappointed and frustrated by this decision.”

In an email, Sgt. Jake Becchina of the Kansas City Police Department said the department respects the court's decision.

"The result of the events is terribly tragic for the family members and all involved," he said. "We are sorry for the pain that Mr. Stokes' family experienced." 

In the nearly seven years since Stokes’ death, investigations by Short and KCUR have shown that the initial police narrative of that night was false. Police accused Stokes of stealing the phone, being armed, then running from police where he forced a stand-off. Police also falsely told his mother that he was shot in the chest.

In fact, Stokes and his friends stayed at the edge of the district he and his friends called “Power & White” because of its history of dress codes that discouraged black visitors. They weren’t drinking, were not armed and were peaceful until Jordan Miller, a then-21-year-old Johnson County man, came out of a country music bar and accused them of stealing his phone. When a fight erupted and police sprayed tear gas, Stokes and his friends scattered and tried to get back to their car, which was parked in a lot close to the Sprint Center.

Other officers later testified that although they pursued Stokes and his friends, when they reached the lot, Stokes was moving to the front of his friend’s car, they didn’t see a gun, and they thought he was raising his arms in surrender. Officers, including Thompson’s partner, didn’t hear the commands he said he gave Stokes to “Drop the gun!” Thompson later testified in a deposition that he thought Stokes was forcing a “suicide by cop.” A grand jury refused to indict Thompson and the case was cleared as a justifiable homicide.

Thompson and his partner, Tamara Jones, were awarded commendations for protecting the other officers –awards that were rescinded by the Police Board of Commissioners in September 2018, saying it was inappropriate.

Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR and is on Twitter at@peggyllowe.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.