Like African-American communities across the country, Kansas City’s Black community has a love-hate relationship with their police department.  In general, community members are pleased by the role the department plays in keeping the community safe, but their relationship is strained by decades of harassment, brutality and deaths at the hand of “some” cops who have little respect for members of the community.

Time after time, members of the clergy, community activists and leaders of civil rights organizations have called for positive change within the department with little results.  This time, in the heat of worldwide protests against police brutality and wrongdoing, the community asked, and the community will receive.

Last week, after years of refusing to fund body cameras for the department’s officers, funding was donated to purchase body cameras for KCPD officers.  In addition, in a deal brokered by Mayor Quinton Lucas and members of the KCPD Board of Police Commissioners, Police Chief Richard Smith agreed to implement the majority of police operational changes a group of organizational leaders said were essential to improving community and police relations. 

Police Body Cameras Funded

The same day a group of clergy stood on the steps of City Hall and demanded the implementation of body cameras in KCPD operations, Chief Smith announced the donation of $2.5 million to purchase the cameras. The donation is from the DeBruce Foundation, a national foundation that seeks to expand economic growth and opportunity. Paul DeBruce, the founder, has been a trustee of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and has chaired the Kansas City Reserve Board of Directors.

“We believe in Kansas City and we want to be part of the solution for the future good of our community,” The DeBruce Foundation said in a statement. “Both citizens and police agree body cameras are needed and a good next step, but there is not enough funding. It is time for foundations and business leaders to take action. That’s why The DeBruce Foundation is stepping up to lead this charge along with the Police Foundation.”

Police Operational Changes Negotiated

Upset by years of strained relationships between KCPD and the Black community, and a viral video of KCPD pepper spraying and arresting protestors on the plaza, leaders from the Kansas City Branch of the NAACP, MORE2 and the Urban League of Greater Kansas City called for Chief Smith’s resignation. They identified several procedural practices they found unacceptable.  The practices included Smith’s consistent practice of conducting internal investigations of officer-involved homicides and excessive force incidents rather than having them investigated by an outside law.

The next day, Mayor Lucas who earlier in the week had reconfirmed his support for Chief Smith, emerged from a closed-door meeting of the KCPD Board of Police Commissioners without Smith’s resignation, but with a list of procedural changes that closely aligned with the requests put forth by the coalition of civil rights organizations.

Smith agreed to send all officer-involved shootings and major use of force complaints, to an outside enforcement agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for independent review.  In addition, he agreed:

Review the use of tear gas and other projectiles and determine ways to further restrict their use and to report results of this review to the Board of Police Commissioner within two weeks.

To make it clear to potential whistleblowers seeing misconduct within KCPD that there is a codified process through which they can report complaints about other officers to the Office of Community Complaints and the BOPC.

To provide the city council weekly updates they will use to inform the public about the department’s ongoing community engagement efforts.

In a KCPD press release following the meeting, Chief Smith said, “We have been listening to the community’s call for change.” According to the release, KCPD has already purchased in-car camera systems and storage to be compatible with a body camera system. They plan to implement body cameras quickly and hope it will increase trust and transparency.

More Needed; Wait and See

Although change for KCPD is in the works, many protestors and activists believe the department has a long way to go.   Not addressed so far, is the ongoing complaint to place control of KCPD under the Mayor and City Council.  Kansas City is the only city in the state controlled by a Board of Police Commissioners who are appointed by the governor.

Devon Hall, from Lee’s Summit, who participated in several recent protests called the mayor’s new measures a promise versus actual change. Like some of Minneapolis’ city council members are advocating for, he wants to see the KCPD defunded with some of their funding reinvested in Kansas City’s black community.

Gwen Grant, President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City told KCUR she is pleased that the department will be obtaining body cameras, but she said they will need to follow up and make sure KCPD is actually following the mayor’s new measures correctly.

– Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community

Jazzlyn "Jazzie” is the former senior reporter for our team, who joined the company in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, through the Report for America service program. For the past two years, she covered...

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