KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City police department has unveiled several new policies designed to improve community relationships after months of complaints arising from confrontations during last summer's racial injustice protests but some community activists immediately rejected the changes as insufficient and demanded stronger action.
The department's First Amendment policy emphasizes that officers should protect citizens' rights to gather and protest. It lays out the chain of command for determining how officers should respond to the gatherings, and encourages efforts to communicate with organizers of the demonstrations.
As part of the initiative, the department announced Thursday that about 900 of its patrol, tactical and traffic officers are now equipped with body cameras, which community groups have been demanding for years.
That announcement came after Mayor Quinton Lucas and Police Chief Rick Smith met privately Wednesday with some community activists to discuss the new policies and how the city could respond if more protests are held.
The effort to improve relationships did not impress several of the civil rights organizations that had demanded changes, particularly that Smith either resign or be fired.
On Thursday, seven groups sent a letter to Lucas, Smith, and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker saying they would not attend the meetings, which they called “performative politics.” They said the police department remains a racist organization that disregards the humanity of Black people.
The letter from Black Rainbow, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Council-Greater Kansas City, Urban League, National Black United Front, Operation Liberation, and Urban Summit said Lucas had not met one of their demands and had engaged in “political posturing” since May 2020.
“Furthermore, the recent reforms announced by KCPD are miniscule, ineffective, inadequate, and don’t produce structural change,” the letter said. “Moreover, they do nothing to dismantle systemic racism in the execution of policies, practices and procedures.”
Henry Service, an attorney and community activist who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said in an interview that any progress that has been made was only because of protests and other actions of activists.
He remains skeptical of city and police leaders’ determination to follow through with changes, although he will continue to attend the monthly gatherings.
“My complaint is that they are now saying they are doing things that they are required (by law) to do in the first place,” Service said. “I just don’t believe the police are going to change unless they are forced to. It’s going to take legislation, it’s going to take media exposure. They won’t do it because they want to.”
Lucas said Thursday he was optimistic the city is making progress in healing its divisions. He said those who attended the meeting talked openly about their concerns, with one participant frankly telling Smith why she wanted him fired. He noted the groups who sent the letter were invited to participate in the meeting but chose not to do so.
“I'm not going to stop meeting with people,” Lucas said.
The mayor said Kansas City compares favorably with any other city in positive changes, citing the decriminalization of most marijuana possession laws, which disproportionately affect Black citizens. He also said he agrees the city needs an independent office for citizen complaints in the police department and local control of its police force.
During a news conference Thursday announcing progress on the body cameras, Smith said the body cameras were a “win-win” for the public and police.
“The community wanted it, our officers wanted it. ... Everyone is trying to get to the truth and the camera will help provide that,” said Smith, who has said repeatedly that he does not intend to resign.
Private donations allowed the city to purchase the cameras, which will cost about $4 million annually. The department has received a federal grant to add cameras for about 400 more detectives.
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd, who was on the committee setting policy for the cameras, said the cameras would help police and prosecutors secure justice. But he explained that under Missouri law, video evidence from the cameras will not be released for the public to see in a criminal case until the case is concluded, unless a judge orders the videos' release.
The department's other policies require police to refrain from deploying less-lethal weapons, munitions or chemical agents unless there is an immediate need to protect themselves or others from injury. Less-lethal weapons — such as rubber bullets — will not be used to disperse crowds, although chemical agents such as tear gas can be used for dispersal.
Other changes made by the department include having outside law enforcement agencies investigate police shootings, and requiring officers to intervene if another officer is using excessive force.