If you are a Kansan celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday, there’s something you can do this year besides tweet a quote or reread “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
It does involve some reading. And the writing is less inspiring on the surface than anything King wrote. But it’s a set of practical suggestions that’s a roadmap for progress, right now, at home.
I’m talking about the unpoetically titled Initial Report from Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity & Justice.
Last June, as people everywhere hit the streets in protest after George Floyd’s murder — and, sorry Republicans, these protests were not the same as what the president’s voluntary militia did at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — Gov. Laura Kelly created the commission. She asked its members to study racial justice in the state, starting with law enforcement, and report back with recommendations.
This group of Kansans — educators, a police chief, a judge, a district attorney, an immigration attorney, an assistant city manager, nonprofit and government administrators, a tribal representative, a professional communicator, a union rep, an assistant vice president for the Federal Reserve, a couple of academics — held 26 virtual meetings with people throughout the state.
“In a short amount of time, we heard from community members, stakeholders, CPOST (the Kansas Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training), chiefs from various police agencies and law enforcement,” says Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools and one of the group’s co-chairs.
“What you find from experiences like this,” she says, “is we can all agree on many topics and issues.”
Some of what they heard reaffirmed what they already knew, or was new information, Anderson says. She says she was moved by the personal stories they heard, such as during a learning session with people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.
“They talked about the fact that when you handcuff someone behind their back, you’ve just taken all of their speech away,” she says.
They distilled what they’d learned into action items and released the report in December.
Proposals that earned Kansas Reflector headlines include banning no-knock warrants, preventing officers who’ve been fired for “egregious offenses” from being hired at different law enforcement agencies, and allowing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.
But the report lists a lot of other things that local and state agencies can do. And any lawmaker who tweets anything about MLK should be required to support all of its proposals.
Recommendations for better officer training might provoke eye rolls from those who’ve grown tired of hearing that better, or more, training is the answer to police brutality. But the report’s training recommendations seem solid, practical and necessary.
Other proposals are basic ways to bring Kansas into the 21st Century and shouldn’t be controversial, such as letting law enforcement agencies hire non-citizens with legal status.
Not allowing such people to serve “prevents agencies from taking advantage of permanent residents (green card holders), DACA recipients, and other potential community members who may make high-quality and committed law enforcement officers,” the report notes.
More succinctly: “Kansas should align with the requirements to serve in the military.”
There’s also a recommendation to change laws preventing people with previous low-level criminal offenses from becoming police officers.
Mostly that refers to people who committed minor crimes as juveniles, says Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, one of the commission members.
“What I’ve seen is that often times disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Ramsay says. “People want to become police officers but stole a six pack or bounced a check when they were in college and drew a municipal charge. Years down the road, when they’ve shown maturity an made good decisions, low-level crimes impact our ability to recruit.”
The report’s proposal to expand Medicaid is presumably DOA with the Legislature’s Republican supermajority. But since they’re the “law and order” party, maybe they could reconsider, knowing it would relieve officers from the burden of mental health calls?
Law enforcement, community members, and leaders agree access to behavioral health care is a criminal justice issue. Many law enforcement encounters are the result of substance use or mental health issues. Increasing access to early intervention options by expanding Medicaid in Kansas would result in improved policing outcomes. Expanding Medicaid would also reduce state general fund spending on law enforcement and behavioral health. – Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity & Justice
“I think the final product is something we all need to look at and be proud of and implement the recommendations,” Ramsay says of the commission’s report. “It was clear last year that our society is demanding police to evolve and reforms to take place.”
Since the MLK holiday is considered a day of service, Kansans could easily check that box by just reading the report. It would also be a way of thanking commission members and everyone who participated for their service over the last six months.
“I just think this is really an opportunity to step back and look at Kansas as a whole,” Anderson says. “I look forward to seeing some changes in Kansas, and I have confidence in our legislative body and our governor that we will see that.”
Which is a made-for-this-moment update of that thing about having a dream.