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Archive for June, 2020

Many police departments now find themselves reeling under waves of outrage against excessive violence against demonstrators, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and choke holds.

KCPD has taken a rightful place among those departments. During the local protest demonstrations, we saw KCPD officers overreact on at least three occasions last weekend:

— On Saturday, May 30, hundreds of peaceful protesters who had gathered at Mill Creek Park were laced with tear gas and pepper spray and intimidated with “flash-bang grenades.” Our old-school police chief, Rick Smith, rationalized the attack, calling the gathering “an unlawful assembly,” which is utter balderdash.

— The same day, police gassed two protesters on the Plaza after one of them stepped off the curb and into the street. Moments earlier, the man had yelled, “If you ain’t got the balls to protect the streets and protect and serve like you was paid to do, turn in your damn badge.” Video of the incident, which Smith described as an “extraction” arrest, has been viewed by millions of people.

— The most serious injury was inflicted on 32-year-old Sean Stearns, Kansas City, who took a rubber bullet, or something like it, in the eye at the May 30 demonstrations. With his girlfriend, Sydney Ragsdale, he had taken shelter behind a Mill Creek Park tree when he was struck. He has lost most of the vision in the eye, and a doctor told him he could lose sight in it altogether.

(Later, I read that a 38-year-old man suffered a badly broken leg in the May 30 demonstrations when he was struck by a tear-gas cannister fired by police.)

Stearns and girlfriend Sydney Ragsdale before May 30 demonstrations

…after

**

Against that backdrop, it was very encouraging to read that Mayor Quinton Lucas, at a large demonstration yesterday outside City Hall, signed onto a list of demands to reform the police department, including local control.

Leading the newfound push for local control are three significant organizations: the Urban League of Kansas City, the local branch of the NAACP and MORE2, that is, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.

On Wednesday, those three groups issued an extraordinary, joint statement calling for Smith’s ouster and also taking control of the department away from the governor’s office and putting it in the hands of the mayor, the City Council and the city manager.

Here are two key points in the statement:

:: “The Board of Police Commissioners behaves as if they were appointed by the Governor to protect and serve the police chief and police officers rather than to ensure that the department is committed to fair and impartial public safety strategies, dedicated to the principles of fairness, equity and accountability and working actively to build bridges that lead to substantial change. Approximately 70% of the City’s operating budget is allocated to public safety with over $250 million dedicated to the police department, yet the City of KCMO has no authority over KCPD decisions, policies, practices, and procedures.”

:: “Recent news reports detailing police-board-approved, multimillion-dollar out-of-court settlements for police involved shootings, homicides, and excessive force incidents along with the recent uptick in police involved shootings and homicides of African American men have heightened the level of our distrust in Chief Smith. We have no confidence in his ability to lead this department in a manner that respects and values the humanity of all Kansas Citians, irrespective of race, ethnicity, and socio- economic status.”

No confidence.” That says it all, does it not?

**

As I have written several times before, wresting control of the police department from Jefferson City will be a steep climb. My understanding is it could be done in one of three ways:

:: A successful, statewide initiative petition followed by voter approval (again, statewide).

Sinquefield

:: The Missouri General Assembly passes a bill, signed by the governor, authorizing an election to change state law to give control of the police department to the city.

:: The General Assembly passes a bill, and the governor signs it into law, authorizing local control in Kansas City.

Any of those options would be very challenging. The General Assembly is Republican and rural dominated, and most of the senators and representatives don’t look kindly on measures giving St. Louis or Kansas City more power at the expense of the state. I think the current governor, Mike Parson, would not have a favorable view of such a change, either.

An initiative petition would be a massive undertaking. It would require procuring the signatures of 5 percent of registered votes in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts. That means paying a small army of people to collect signatures, which, in turn, requires a big benefactor.

In St. Louis, a powerful, conservative activist and political contributor, Rex Sinquefield, largely financed a successful petition drive in 2011 and early 2012, and that resulted in voters statewide approving local control of the St. Louis Police Department in November 2012.

I doubt that Sinquefield would be willing to make that kind of investment on the western side of the state, and I can’t think of anyone else who might be willing to step up and fund a statewide petition drive. (James B. Nutter Sr., mortgage banker and big-time contributor to Democratic politicians, might have done it, but unfortunately he died three years ago.)

Nevertheless, with the events of the last two weeks, I am much more optimistic than I have ever been about the prospect of local control of KCPD.

**

In the shorter term, I think Smith’s time as chief can now be numbered in months, not years. I believe he will be out by year’s end.

Reforms to KCPD will be coming soon, but whatever they are, they will not be sufficient to stop the push for local control or Smith’s ouster. I doubt he will have the stomach to go on. He’s had a long career, a hefty pension awaits.

And even if he should want to go on, things have changed so much in the last couple of weeks that a majority of the five-member police board may now be thinking about the wisdom of a change at the top. Under state law, a Missouri police chief can only be fired “for cause,” which sets a high bar. Nevertheless, if a majority of the police board was bent on making a change, it would be uncomfortable for Smith to try to stay.

Here’s how change at the top could occur…

The board consists of the mayor and four people appointed by the governor. The four appointed members are private investor and multi-millionaire Don Wagner; retired lawyer Cathy Dean; Mark Tolbert, pastor of an African-American church; and lawyer Nathan Garrett.

As board officers, Wagner (president), Tolbert (vice president) and Dean (treasurer) would probably hold sway in regard to Smith’s future, along with Lucas.

Lucas has not said directly if he supports Smith, but by signing on to the NAACP/MORE2/Urban League demands, he has effectively said he does not support him.

There’s one solid vote against Smith.

Dean

Of the other board members, I have only met Cathy Dean, and it was totally unrelated to her board service. Nevertheless, she strikes me as someone who would be very concerned about this situation and receptive to calls for major reform.

That could be another vote against Smith.

It’s almost a given that Tolbert will side with the groups demanding that Smith leave.

If Dean was of like mind, that would be three votes, a majority.

 

 

Then, there’s Wagner, board president. He is rich (made a fortune in the steel-tank business), elderly and probably in his waning years of civic service. I don’t see why he would feel beholden to either Smith or even Gov. Mike Parson. He might envision himself — or come to envision himself — as the man who presided over a much-needed and critical change of direction at the police department.

Readers, it’s almost a done deal: Rick Smith is on the way out.

Editor’s note: I amended the sections pertaining to local control and firing the police chief after learning more about state law pertaining to both issues.

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I haven’t forgotten about either of our co-Public Enemies No. 1 in the Kansas City area.

A year ago, I had David Jungerman, who probably killed lawyer Thomas Pickert, as Public Enemy No. 1. Now I’m giving equal status to Kylr Yust, who probably killed Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions.

Both of these guys have been in jail more than two years now — Jungerman in Jackson County and Yust in Cass County — and their murder cases have been inching along painfully.

Here are the latest developments…

The Yust case

The trial was scheduled to start July 27, but at a video conference Tuesday, Judge William B. Collins said he would grant a defense motion for a continuance (date to be determined), partly because previously unknown information pertaining to some other possible suspects surfaced recently.

In one instance, a VHS tape was discovered during the cleaning of a desk formerly occupied by a Belton police lieutenant. The tape contained material about someone who apparently was interviewed at some point about the Kopetsky murder. (She was killed in 2007, Runions in 2016.)

Tuesday’s hearing, which I watched via WebEx, included Yust, his three St. Louis-based public defenders and Cass County Prosecutor Ben Butler and Assistant Prosecutor Julie Tolle.

One of the people listening in, as I did, was John Runions, who must be related to Jessica.

Yust was videoed while seated in a room at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office. A couple of times before the hearing began, he waved at the camera, either to acknowledge his attorneys or indicate he could see all the other parties. He did not smile when he waved.

As soon as the hearing got underway, Judge Collins showed his frustration at the belated surfacing of new information, including the VHS tape, and also at the Sheriff’s Office failure to produce a report on prison calls various parties had had with Yust.

With the corners of his mouth often drawn up tightly, Collins, in casual attire, said…“It’s troubling. I’m asking the same questions, and we’re not getting quick answers from law enforcement agencies about these requests” for documents and reports.

“I need to find out what is exactly happening.”

Collins said that in hopes of moving the case along, he intended to appoint a retired judge as a “special master,” whose job it would be to sort through the “discovery” issues, that is, the puzzle of the VHS tape and other late-surfacing information about additional witnesses.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys wholeheartedly agreed on the importance of getting access whatever information the Belton Police Department failed, for whatever reason, to forward to the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office. The defense is entitled to see any evidence the state has, so it works both ways.

…What I am worried about is that this case might have been too complex for small-town Belton Police Department. It is the biggest case Cass County has seen in decades, and Belton PD might have been in over its head. If that’s so, it could ultimately and fatally compromise the state’s case.

It will be a tragedy if the Belton PD’s failure to consolidate and hand over information in timely fashion allows Yust to one day go free.

**

The Jungerman case

Trial was scheduled to begin last week but has been pushed back to Oct. 5.

It does not appear as muddled as the Yust case but, it, too, is bogged down in various motions.

Among them:

— A defense motion to set a bond for Jungerman so he could get out of jail while awaiting trial. This motion was filed March 20, and Judge John Torrence has not ruled. Currently, Jungerman, now 82 years old, is being held without bond, and I think the chances of Torrence setting a bond are one in a million.

— A defense motion to suppress items recovered from an Oct. 25, 2017, police traffic stop of Jungerman and subsequent statements he made while police interviewed him. (That was the day Pickert was gunned down in his front yard in Brookside.) Defense attorneys filed the motion to suppress last week, and the state has requested additional time to respond.

 

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It’s election day, so let’s lighten up a bit while we wait to see if Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters slips another turd (a quarter-cent sales tax increase) past a citizenry that is preoccupied with a pandemic, a recession and angry demonstrations in the streets.

…If you’ll recall, the comments board “lit up” on May 24, after I wrote about Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger’s flawed ranking of the “50 most influential people in KC sports history.”

The 41-(or so)year-old columnist failed to include such pivotal figures as Dick Howser, who managed the 1985 World Champion Royals, and Jack Steadman, the iron-fisted president of the Chiefs under owner Lamar Hunt.

More recently, the sports desk has been doing another “best of all time” series, this one the biggest plays in Kansas City sports history.

The team of Pete Grathoff, the laziest sports reporter at The Star, and Blair Kerkhoff, one of the most industrious, has been doing these stories in blocks of five plays at a time. I haven’t paid close attention to all 25, but I read with interest in Monday’s print edition the duo’s story on plays Numbers 1 to 5.

And I’ve gotta say, they nailed it.

No. 1. Who can forget the spine-tingling 65 Toss Power Trap, called by chiefs’ Coach Hank Stram in Super Bowl IV, Jan. 11, 1970, when the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings? The play almost immediately catapulted into the annals of pro football because of NFL Films, which had wired Stram for sound.

When inspiration struck, Stram grabbed Chiefs’ wide receiver Glocester Richardson and said, “Glocester tell (Len Dawson) 65 Toss Power Trap. It might pop wide open.”

“The Mentor,” calling 65 Toss Power Trap in Super Bowl IV

Grathoff and Kerkhoff wrote, “The trap caught so many Vikings players out of position (Mike) Garrett could have walked into the end zone.”

Stram is then seen and heard cackling and exulting and saying, “Was that there, baby?”

If the world is around 100 years from now, that video will still be sending chills down people’s spines.

No. 2. Fast forward to the Chiefs’ next Super Bowl victory, an even 50 years later, when Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes asked offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, “Do we have time to run ‘Wasp?’ ”

Next thing you know Chiefs’ running back Tyreek Hill was wide open 44 yards down the sideline, and Mahomes’ high, floating dropped out of the sky and into his clutching arms…And the Chiefs were on their way to beating the San Francisco 49ers 31 to 20.

No. 3. On Oct. 27, 2015, when it looked like the New York Mets were on their way to winning Game 1 of the World Series here in Kansas City, Royals’ outfielder Alex Gordon stepped to the plate against the Mets’ dominating closer Jeurys Familia.

Gordon watches his homer head toward the center field wall.

I think just about everybody thought Familia was going to get Gordon out. But with Royals trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth and the count 1-1 on Gordon, Familia took an abbreviated windup and tried to quick-pitch him. Having watched Familia quick-pitch the previous batter, Gordon was ready. He crushed the pitch, and the ball headed deep toward straightaway center field. When the ball disappeared over the wall, the crowd went crazy. The Royals, of course, went on to win the game and the series. It was the most important home run in Royals’ history.

No. 4. In the 2008 NCAA Tournament Finals, Memphis led KU by three points with 10 seconds remaining. Point guard Sherron Collins dribbled to the three-point line and handed the ball off to the other guard, Mario Chalmers, who swished a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining. That sent the game into overtime, when the Jayhawks pulled away to a 75-68 victory.

No. 5. This was another incredible Royals’ play, almost more astounding than Gordon’s homer off Familia. In the bottom of the 12th inning of the American League Wild Card Game on Sept. 30, 2014, the Royals and the Oakland A’s were tied 8-8 at Kauffman Stadium.

With the potential winning run on second base in the person of Christian Colon, Royals’ catcher Salvadore Perez was battling A’s reliever Jason Hammel. With the count 2-2, Hammel threw the right-handed-hitting Perez a pitch way outside the strike zone. Perez, a notorious sucker for bad pitches, bent way over, reached out and managed to get the bat on the ball. Somehow, Perez pulled the pitch to his left, down toward third base. A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson dove to his left but just missed the ball, and Colon sped home with the winning run.

The team went on to the World Series that year but lost, memorably, to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7.

…Ah, great stuff.

Hats off to the “-hoff” team, Grat and Kerk.

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Few things are more gratifying to a columnist than seeing other columnists jump on the bandwagon they set in motion.

So I took great joy and satisfaction this morning when I opened The Star and saw that KC Star editorial board member and op-ed columnist Melinda Henneberger had taken a cudgel to our do-nothing, afraid-of-his-shadow police chief, Rick Smith.

It was 10 months ago that I first said Smith liked to hide behind his blog post and his public information officers, instead of answering reporters’ questions face to face or even holding news conferences. I accelerated the criticism in January, focusing on the need for local control of KCPD. Last week, as many of you will recall, I wrote saying local control had become a matter of urgency with Smith and his predecessor, Darryl Forte, at the helm.

Now, I don’t know if Henneberger, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in each of the last two years, even reads my posts (I’m honored if she does), but in today’s column she certainly picked up on my theme.

Her lead sentence summed up the situation in funnier and more penetrating words than I have been able to come up with. (She’s not a Pulitzer finalist for nothing.) She wrote…

“I was about ready to see if we couldn’t put Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith’s face on a milk carton: Have you seen this man?”

Bravo, Melinda, you nailed it!

I know a lot of you readers don’t have subscriptions to The Star and might not be able to open the above link to her column. So, here are some of the highlights…These are direct quotes:

(U)ntil Sunday, when he finally appeared at a news conference at Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas’ personal invitation, Smith had said zero words publicly about the sight of George Floyd pleading for air and for his mama, as dying men have always done.

For six days, Smith had no comment on the officer who’d held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. For five days, he kept to himself his thoughts on the protests Floyd’s murder had set off in other cities. For two days, he said nothing about protests here in Kansas City.

Smith didn’t have the week off or anything; he was at the protests, though not visible, working from the police command center. But it was Capt. Dave Jackson, a public information officer, who was sent out to speak. That’s not leadership.

When Smith finally did show himself on Sunday, and was asked why it had taken him six days to make a sound, this was his answer: “I think we put out a statement when it happened.

— And still, he couldn’t bring himself to say these two words: George Floyd.

Kansas City should be better than this, he said to protesters, and he’s right about that; breaking glass and throwing rocks helps nobody. But Kansas City also deserves better than this, better than a police chief in hiding.

**

I think Henneberger’s column could be a breakthrough in terms of how the public and The Star’s editorial board views Smith and the issue of local control.

The public doesn’t pay much attention to the chief, or the police department in general, until they start to worry about their personal safety. It’s not really a major concern to most people when they read reports of high murder rates, as long as they don’t feel threatened themselves. But with what has been taking place on the streets the last few days, it’s starting to become personal. People can’t help but wonder what might happen to them if they’re out in their cars and encounter a seething group of protesters.

Protesters in Kansas City

The editorial board, on the other hand, has been sitting back watching Smith, giving him the benefit of the doubt, since he was named chief in July 2017. Unlike me on my little blog, the editorial board has to be extremely cautious, because once it collectively decides to shift positions, it’s hard to turn back.

That’s why I say this could be a turning point.

Also, I hope the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners is paying attention and not hiding behind their big titles, bestowed by the governor.

Maybe, if they don’t have their hands over their eyes and plugs in their ears, this will be the beginning of the end of a guy who is clearly a bad police chief.

Maybe, even, a significant number of people will start wondering if local control (which would be difficult to attain) isn’t such a bad idea.

It’s a damn shame that Lucas is just one member of that five-member board and has a minor, though important, voice in who we have as police chief. As I’ve said before, the other commissioners (lawyers Nathan Garrett and Cathy Dean, minister Mark Tolbert and businessman Don Wagner), as well as commissioners before them, have been virtual rubber stamps for the chief.

Damn it, that’s got to stop. As they’re saying on the streets, enough is enough. Rick Smith must be sent packing, and we need local control of KCPD now more than ever.

…And, finally, thank you, Melinda, for calling out our commander-in-hiding.

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