When Sheryl Ferguson, leader of activist group It’s Time 4 Justice, heard about 26-year-old Cameron Lamb’s death by Kansas City Police Department officers in 2019, it ignited her continuous fight for justice.
Her daughter and Lamb had been high school sweethearts and best friends, even after high school.
“Cameron was an extremely respectful young man. If a uniformed officer would have shown up, he would have done everything to comply,” said Ferguson.
KCPD officer Eric DeValkenaere shot and killed Lamb in Dec. 2019 after a high speed chase. The shooting occurred while Lamb was in his vehicle in his driveway. According to court documents DeValkenaere said he saw Lamb pull out a gun and point it at another officer, Troy Schwalm. Schwalm said he did not see a gun in Lamb’s hands.
A Jackson County grand jury has since indicted DeValkenaere, charging him with first-degree involuntary manslaughter and armed criminal action.
In officer-involved shootings like Lamb’s, KCPD officers are allowed 48 hours before writing a formal statement. During that time officers are allowed to review evidence, and their attorneys are allowed at the crime scene. These policies protecting officers are covered under a contract negotiated by the Board of Police Commissioners and the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union.
Ferguson and It’s Time 4 Justice have protested for months for increased accountability, and created a petition demanding civilian oversight of the contract negotiations.
While police unions advocate for better pay and working conditions for officers, they also decide disciplinary policies for when police kill civilians.
“The making of police unions, in a way, started off with good intentions, but it turned into something that was absolutely horrendous,” said Rachel Hudson, a local activist with the Miller Dream, an activist group advocating for police accountability. “It’s like a fraternity – brothers are going to ride with their brothers. They protect their own.”
The contract expires at the end of the month, and activists like Ferguson and Hudson want provisions like the 48-hour waiting period eliminated. Negotiations, however, are done behind closed doors, making it difficult for any public input.
More than 130 other police agencies in the nation prevent investigators from immediately interviewing officers after an incident, according to research by Campaign Zero, a nonprofit group working to end police violence.
Those waiting periods allow officers to collude and give a consistent story, wrote Samuel Walker, professor at the University of Nebraska’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, in a 2015 study.
“That’s not the kind of protection that ought to be given to public officials who have the kinds of powers that police officers have,” Carl Takei, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Bloomberg Law. “It’s certainly not a protection that we afford to any regular citizen accused of shooting somebody.”
Advocates of the 48-hour waiting period say traumatic incidents affect memory. Therefore, two full sleep cycles are required for an accurate recollection of events. But Walker wrote that psychological literature does not support that argument. Some studies have even found that stress may enhance memory.
“Even if the science underlying waiting periods were valid, police unions and their advocates apply waiting periods in an inconsistent, hypocritical, and self-serving manner,” wrote Walker. “They do not, for example, extend the privilege of delayed investigations to crime victims, witnesses, or suspected criminals, groups who presumably would have flawed memories because of their recent traumatic experiences.”
Since George Floyd’s death, police unions with policies like the 48-hour waiting period have faced increased scrutiny, and activists have worked to dismantle them.
Washington D.C. removed disciplinary procedures from their police union agreements last year. Now, D.C.’s mayor and police chief have the power to rewrite disciplinary procedures for police officers.
It’s an outcome that Ferguson is doubtful will come to Kansas City this year.
She predicts the FOP and Board of Police Commissioners will push through the contract with no changes.
“And I don’t necessarily have faith in our current system to make the changes that are needed to make Kansas City more secure, but we’re not giving up,” Ferguson said. “So, whereas we might not be able to get it done this year, it’s going to happen. We will not rest until the provisions that make it okay to kill Black men are gone.”
Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.