Politics, misinformation undermine Topeka debate on police reform

By: - August 25, 2020 12:45 pm
Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 2nd District, laughs during a news conference Tuesday about the suggestion by Kim Borchers that the mayor is angling for the "woke vote" by pursuing police reform. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla was the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 2nd District. She lost to Republican State Treasurer Jake LaTurner. With LaTurner leaving for Congress, Gov. Laura Kelly has appointed Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers as state treasurer. Kelly is set to announce a new lieutenant governor on Monday, Dec. 14. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kim Borchers wants Topeka residents to be afraid.

Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla wants people to stop paying attention to lies they see online.

A Kansas delegate to the Republican National Convention, Borchers hurled a Molotov cocktail of misinformation, anger and fear into public debate on police reform during a live Facebook video earlier this month with a retired Topeka police officer. She urged Topekans to rally in opposition of police reform ahead of Tuesday evening’s special city council meeting dedicated to that subject.

Demands by Black Lives Matter and others for transparency, accountability, training and changes in police tactics are really a starting point, Borchers claimed without evidence, for abolishing police altogether.

People should be scared, she said. Wives should be scared to meet their spouses for dinner downtown, for instance. Roving bands of criminals will flock to Topeka, knowing it is prime for plunder.

“Let’s just paint a picture,” Borchers said. “Let’s say your daughter’s been abducted, right? Don’t you want the law enforcement to do whatever they have in their disposal in order to find that person? Let’s say they find them, right, and they go in. Do you want them to do the knock?

“If you think your kid’s there, and that person could go out a back door, do you want them to be able to get a head start? I don’t think so. I think you want law enforcement to be able to go in and bash down the door and get your kid.”

Borchers’ hypothetical is moot. A ban on no-knock warrants that the council passed earlier this year, with support from the police chief, includes an exception for extenuating circumstances.

During a news conference Tuesday morning, De La Isla, the Topeka mayor and Democratic nominee for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House, railed against the “unrest” caused by false narratives.

In a 15-minute speech, De La Isla revealed she has been the target of two recent threats, voiced affection for Black brothers and sisters, and talked about the time police saved her life from an abusive ex-husband on Valentine’s Day.

“For the record, I’ve been threatened before, and I’m still here,” De La Isla said. “It’s time for us to stop the threats. It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to look for the truth. The truth is available to you.”

The mayor said she has passed along two concerning emails to police, both with known senders. One of them, she said, advised: “You want trouble, I’m going to be your Huckleberry.” Another individual called her “trash” and warned: “Don’t you dare respond, because if you do, you’re going to have to call the police.”

A special meeting was scheduled for Tuesday night to give the public a chance to talk about both reform and support for police. About 50 community members have signed up to speak, and the council will take no action.

Dueling demonstrations by police supporters and Black Lives Matter were planned in advance of the 6 p.m. meeting.

Borchers is known in Topeka for her crusade against books she doesn’t like at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. She also handled cabinet appointments for Gov. Sam Brownback and this week is representing the Republican Party on a national stage.

“This is not R vs D. This is not white, black, brown,” Borchers said in her Aug. 11 video, in which she discussed the pitfalls of police reform with retired officer Ron Gish.

Kim Borchers and retired Topeka police officer Ron Gish identify pitfalls of police reform during a live video broadcast on Facebook. Borchers suggested the end game is to abolish police altogether. (Screenshot by Kansas Reflector)
Kim Borchers and retired Topeka police officer Ron Gish identify pitfalls of police reform during a live video broadcast on Facebook. Borchers suggested the end game is to abolish police altogether. (Screenshot by Kansas Reflector)

“This is about public safety,” Borchers said, “and if you want to know that when you and your husband go out to dinner downtown that things are safe, you want to make sure that you’re contacting the city council and the mayor and letting them know you want law enforcement to be able to have every tool available, at their disposal, to keep you and your spouse protected. Or how about when your daughter goes to work. Or your son. I’m very alarmed.”

Gish agreed: “You want to enjoy yourself. You don’t want to have to worry about being robbed, have your stuff stolen, things of that nature. You want it to be a fun, enjoyable evening. You don’t want to worry about crime.”

Borchers suggested the mayor was motivated to engage in police reform because of a desire to secure the “woke vote” in her congressional campaign. The mayor, who is running against Republican state Treasurer Jake LaTurner, laughed at the suggestion during her news conference.

“I find it very sad that anybody would try to use national politics against a local issue,” De La Isla said. “So to anybody that thinks that I would abscond my role as mayor and put my police officers or my community in danger in order to sway votes, they are sorely incorrect.”

Kara Zeyer, a spokeswoman for LaTurner, said the mayor was pretending to be moderate to win an election.

“De La Isla marched on the streets of Topeka to advance the ‘defund the police’ movement,” Zeyer said. “Her handpicked Human Relations Commission has proposed a radical left-wing agenda that would put police officers in harm’s way.”

The mayor has repeatedly asserted she has no interest in defunding the police and pointed to a $5 million increase in the Topeka police budget since she became mayor. De La Isla applauded the HRC for its efforts to draft recommendations for police reform but said some of the proposed policy changes weren’t realistic.

Zeyer said Borchers is a well-respected committeewoman for the Kansas Republican Party who supports but is not employed by LaTurner’s campaign.

“LaTurner is a strong and lifelong supporter of law enforcement officers and will fight any efforts to defund the police,” Zeyer said.

Theresa Joyce-Wynne, a vocal advocate for police accountability, said Borchers’ warnings sounded like coded racist language directed toward white people to make them feel unsafe. Joyce-Wynne is white and married to a Black man.

“When I am alone, at the grocery store, at a restaurant, wherever, other white people feel very comfortable commenting to me about someone of color around us,” Joyce-Wynne said. “When I’m with my children or my spouse, it’s totally different.”

Two Topeka police officers killed her son, Dominique White, three years ago by shooting him in the back as he ran away from them.

She said she doesn’t want to defund police or take their guns away. She just wants more accountability.

“Officers are public servants,” Joyce-Wynne said. “If they break procedures and policies, we should know about that. That’s the only way to be transparent.”

For example, one of the officers who killed her son, Michael Cruse, has been relegated to the job of “crime scene technician.” His duties are limited to transporting evidence from one location to another.

“Why is he not back out on the street if he did nothing wrong?” Joyce-Wynne said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.