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Kansas City Police Meet With Some Activists, Others Reject Meeting

 Kansas City Chief of Police Rick Smith talks Thursday at police headquarters about the impact of body cameras in the policing community.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Chief of Police Rick Smith talks Thursday at police headquarters about the impact of body cameras in the policing community.

Eds note: Updated at 8:45 p.m. with response from Mayor Quinton Lucas.

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith touted his department’s first deployment of body cameras for the entire patrol division Thursday in hopes of showcasing reforms made in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.

Following this week's guilty verdict of a Minneapolis Police officer in the George Floyd murder trial, Smith’s office met with community members, issued a list of reforms made this year and held a press conference about the 900 patrol officers who will now be wearing body cameras.

“George Floyd’s death sparked an outcry in our community and one of those changes that was asked for was for body cameras,” Smith said. “We listened to those who requested those.”

Smith, who faces calls to resign from social justice activists and at least one city council member, met with Black ministers and other social justice activists Wednesday night. Also in attendance were three members of Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s office and representatives for Mayor Quinton Lucas.

But a coalition of legacy civil rights organizations and younger social justice activists refused the invitation to Wednesday night's meeting, saying their goals are still unmet. They also said they reject law enforcement's "performative politics."

The letter also cited a CNN interview earlier this week featuring Lucas, calling it "shenanigans." During the interview, Lucas said he was trying to meet with organizers to help deter potential civil unrest following the Chauvin verdict.

In an open letter issued Thursday to Smith, Baker and Lucas, the group once again called for cutting the police budget down to 20 percent of the city's general fund and redirecting resources to housing, healthcare, sustainable infrastructure and education.

"This call for communal dialogue reminds us of last summer when you knelt with us in the afternoon and set a curfew to teargas us by the evening," the letter reads, in a direct nod to Lucas.

The letter from the coalition, which includes Black Rainbow, NAACP, SCLC, Urban League, National Black United Front, Operation Liberation and Urban Summit, calls Smith's list of reforms "miniscule, ineffective, inadequate, and don’t produce structural change."

"Moreover, they do nothing to dismantle systemic racism in the execution of policies, practices and procedures," the letter reads.

Later Thursday, Lucas responded in another open letter, saying he learned of the letter from the press, "which makes one question who is playing politics." He said he would review the group's demands, and reiterated that the mayor of Kansas City doesn't hire or fire the police chief.

"The mayor is one of five votes, often a lone one, pushing change on the governing board of the Kansas City Police Department. I will continue to do so," Lucas wrote.

Lucas said he would reach out again for a meeting with the group, even if they criticized him as a Black man who wasn't doing enough to help the community.

"I would like my time in office to make life safer for those like me and my sisters in Kansas City — and that includes from police misconduct," he wrote.

Activist Justice Horn said the meeting was an attempt to help prevent the sometimes-violent clashes between protesters and police during Black Lives Matter protests last spring and summer.

“It’s the first time we’re being proactive about this,” Horn said. “Thank God the verdict was the one we were hoping for.”

Some activists have called for Smith's resignation since those protests, saying he dragged his feet on excessive force investigations, failed to seek diversity for the police force, and overall lacks the trust of the Black community.

Horn said activists and clergy also asked for a commitment from prosecutors that peaceful protestors wouldn’t be charged with non-violent offenses, like for stepping off the sidewalk. They also asked for a ban on tear gas at protests.

“It’s important we are not using chemical weapons in our city,” Horn said. “Kansas City is not a war zone.”

In addition to the body cameras, a release sent by Smith’s office touted other departmental reforms made in the last year, including independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, a new First Amendment policy, and an updated “duty to intervene” policy, which calls for officers to report improper conduct.

Kansas City Police also updated their “response to resistance policy,” which calls for the department to be more responsive to community concerns about chokeholds, created a new system to anonymously report inappropriate behavior, and launched an office of community complaints.

The body cameras, which will be linked to in-car systems already in place, cost $4 million and were paid for by a private donor. They will be worn by 900 officers who work in traffic, on foot patrols and in tactical units.

Although officers have discretion on when to turn on their body cameras, they must be recording during “calls for service, traffic stops, any contact that could result in law enforcement action,” said Major Paul Luster of the department's fiscal division. Residents can also ask an officer to turn off the cameras.

“Everyone is trying to get to the truth and the camera will try to provide that,” Smith said.

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.