Kansas Commission on Racial Equity and Justice turns focus to community involvement

By: - July 23, 2020 7:00 pm
Members of the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice express an interest Thursday in increasing diversity of listening session communities. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Several members of the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice questioned the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police’s willingess to answer tough questions in an forthcoming listening session. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Wichita police Chief Gordon Ramsay says throughout his career in law enforcement he has noticed, and often been told of, the need to address the system of fines leading to the removal of driver’s licenses and sometimes incarceration.

“Once you get into that cycle of debt, you lose your license and then you can’t get out of it,” Ramsay said. “We need to address this so people who have a job, who have families, aren’t being hurt over small fines and fees.”

Ramsay brought the issue to the attention of members of the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice on Thursday during the panel’s second meeting. Commissioners emphasized the value of community input on such issues as they begin to make headway in identifying areas of interest.

Gov. Laura Kelly tasked the commission with addressing issues of racial injustice in Kansas and providing tangible policy actions the state can take, beginning with law enforcement relationships with their communities.

The commission has been soliciting public feedback online and held two listening sessions since its inaugural meeting earlier this month.

“There was a lot of talk about transparency and data collection, among a variety of topics,” said commissioner Monique Centeno, a Sedgwick County district judge. “Topics that we can use beyond the typical topics of ‘no police brutality.’ ”

The National Governors Association presented the commission with a review of past reports of similar efforts, including the DOJ Ferguson Report, which addressed issues of fines.

Suggestions from past commissions — Minnesota Working Group, “Kerner Commission” and the President’s 21st Century Policing — include improved data collection and transparency, increased investment in mental health and trauma services, and citizen oversight over police forces.

Kansas activists and attorneys echoed the need for increased accountability in a forum on racial justice hosted by University of Kansas Law School earlier this week, and several commissioners expressed interest in addressing oversight in Kansas.

“There is a lot of conversation nationwide right now about what model of oversight is the best,” said Catalina Velarde, an Overland Park attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. “There’s a spectrum of oversight models from a more hands-off internal affairs unit to the much more extreme independent model where that oversight is completely outside of the police force.”

The NGA presentation also covered officer wellness and suggestions for modified training — confronting implicit biases and cultural responsiveness of law enforcement officers — as well as revision of policy and procedures.

Ramsay suggested the commission have more one-on-one discussions with law enforcement administrators before suggesting any action on these issues.

“Because so much of the discussion we are having is about police, I’d like to see some sort of communication about the efforts they are making,” Ramsay said. “I think it would help give us some clarity from their perspective.”

The commission, which meets biweekly, plans to host more learning sessions for a variety of communities, including university students and law enforcement agencies.

“We want to be as open as possible to getting input,” said co-chairwoman Shannon Portillo, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus. “If there is a community that wants to be heard, that’s a listening session we would consider.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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