When Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence branch of the NAACP, sat down with a former member of the Lawrence Police Department, she was surprised to hear his cavalier attitude toward issues of racial justice.
“They said they didn’t see any problems. They told me minorities hadn’t told them about any problems,” Minor said at a virtual forum Tuesday on racial injustice and policing reform in Kansas.
The forum hosted by the University of Kansas School of Law included policymakers, activists and attorneys, including Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, chairman for the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission.
Panelists called for increased transparency from law enforcement, starting with improved data collection from arrests and traffic stops.
Minor said her branch of the NAACP helped push Lawrence to begin tracking key demographic information from all stops, not just those that result in a ticket, the LPD policy at the time.
“Data collection was a need so that we can prove that there were a lot of stops to a lot of minorities,” Minor said. “Those stops lead to other issues, like how Lawrence has a high rate of minorities in its jails, higher than the rest of the country.”
Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, expressed similar concerns over a lack of preliminary knowledge of the issues in these police reform conversations. She pushed further, saying there needs to be accountability when that transparency is present, as well.
“There’s a real opportunity to look at these barriers preventing us from holding people accountable again, like qualified immunity,” Bonds said.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine protecting public employees, including police officers, when they violate constitutional rights as long as they do not break any “clearly established” law. The way the doctrine is applied often makes it nearly impossible to hold law enforcement accountable, Bonds said.
“If you kill somebody, a prosecutor should be able to prosecute you,” Bonds said.
She pointed to the trial of officer Aaron Chafee, of the Wichita Police Department, who fatally shot Marquez Smart, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man, from behind as he was lying face down in a parking lot in 2012. In 2018, a U.S. District Court ruling dismissed a lawsuit brought by Smart’s parents because the officer was protected under the qualified immunity doctrine.
Bennett, who was named Sedgwick County district attorney after the Smart case, and Melody Brannon, a federal public defender in Kansas, pointed to mental health as an area of emphasis in their efforts to curb racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
“A lot of my time is spent with people who are rearrested and they aren’t going back to jail for new crimes,” Brannon said. “They are going back because of addiction, and very often because of mental health problems.
Brannon said it was morally shortsighted and economically absurd to continue the practice of re-imprisoning those with mental health and addictions, rather than addressing the underlying problem.
“We have not provided treatment or mental health services. That needs to be a priority moving forward,” Brannon said.