TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A commission Gov. Laura Kelly established to examine policing and other racial justice issues after George Floyd's death plans to recommend that Kansas law enforcement agencies no longer use unmarked police vehicles during traffic stops — unless police believe they are needed to avoid endangering officers or public safety.
The Commission on Racial Equity and Justice on Thursday approved a recommendation for law enforcement vehicles to be “uniformly labelled and clearly identifiable by members of the public." The recommendation, approved on a 13-1 vote, was among the last that the commission approved to appear in a report it plans to present to the governor by Dec. 1.
However, it faced opposition from the police chief of Kansas’ largest city, who also sits on the commission.
“We need unmarked cars to perform traffic enforcement. It’s just a basic tenant of performing it because when you have a squad driving down the street with lights on it, people can see them coming,” said Commissioner Gordon Ramsay, Wichita police chief, adding that some of Wichita's most frequent complaints are traffic-related.
The commission included an exception for cases when a law enforcement agency decides driving a marked vehicle would be a “danger or detriment” to an officer or to “community safety."
The commission made the change after Ramsay and Commissioner Mark Dupree, who's also Wyandotte County District Attorney, expressed concerns about the recommendation potentially restricting local control for law enforcement agencies.
The commission considered approving the recommendation after it held a virtual “listening session” in August with mostly southwest Kansas residents. There, attendees described feeling intimidated when they couldn’t identify police vehicles, Chairwoman Shannon Portillo, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Kansas campus in Overland Park, said at a meeting on Nov. 12.
Commissioner Ernestor De La Rosa, a Dodge City assistant city manager who attended the listening session, said at the previous meeting that he often sees unmarked police cars in neighboring counties, which he said leads to distrust and causes people to question whether they are legitimate law enforcement vehicles.
“If you’re not clearly identified, what is the goal really with not labelling the vehicle correctly?” said De La Rosa.
On Thursday, Ramsay said, in his 27 years in law enforcement, he's never encountered an incident where someone questioned the legitimacy of an officer driving an unmarked car.
“I've seen it on Facebook, but my realities in the cities I've worked in, it's never been an issue,” Ramsay said, “it may be in rural areas out in the middle of nowhere, but as far as urban policing, I'm not aware of it.”
“I can tell you in my 15 years as being a chief, it's never made it to a complaint that we've received,” Ramsay said.
Besides the recommendation for law enforcement to only used marked vehicles during traffic enforcement, commissioners approved other recommendations without opposition, including a recommendation to prohibit suspending someone's driver's license for failing to pay fines and fees, ban no-knock warrants in drug cases and require reporting on when and why no-knock warrants were used by law enforcement agencies.
Earlier this month, the commission approved a recommendation for law enforcement officers to ask drivers for sex and age, racial and ethnic information during traffic stops. The information would be used by a still-to-be-determined state agency to analyze traffic-stop data.
The commission approved a recommendation for the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center to maintain a public database on the racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds of officers and recruits. Commissioners also approved a recommendation that would require the KLETC to collect law enforcement retention and promotion data to the state.
This story has been corrected to show that the commission included an exception for case after some expressed concerns during Thursday’s meeting, not from discussions before the meeting.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.