After George Floyd’s murder, a racial equity panel proposed changes. The Kansas Legislature ignored them.

By: - April 22, 2021 9:00 am

On the Senate floor in early April, Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau pointed to difficulties enacting meaningful racial equity policies during her time in the Senate. A series of proposed bill by a racial justice panel have stalled in committee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Speaking on the Senate floor earlier this month, Sen. Oletha Faust Goudeau talked about the inequities she has experienced daily at the Legislature — from being denied boxed lunches because she didn’t “look” like a senator to seeing her bills go nowhere.

Many efforts she initiated that would help level the playing field for people of color in her district and across the state have been disregarded or buried, the Wichita Democrat told colleagues.

“It’s constant work and struggles, and I don’t ever see the results of it. It’s draining emotionally to see people suffer,” Faust Goudeau said.

Faust Goudeau’s frustration over difficulty passing legislation that would aid minority communities in Kansas is evident in the inaction this session on recommendations from the Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. The panel issued more than 30 suggestions in its December report for state legislators to consider, but none has received meaningful consideration.

The panel was established June 2020 by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly following the murder of George Floyd and worked through December to review ways in which local and state criminal legal systems and policing in Kansas disproportionately impacts communities of color. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, was found guilty Tuesday of all three charges against him — second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

While Kelly did not weigh in on why these bills have stalled, she said efforts to ensure racial equity would not be completed in just one legislative session.

“The systemic racism that exists within a number of our systems, including our judicial and correctional system, have been long-standing,” the governor said. “We’re not going to resolve those issues overnight. It will be a process.”

The initial report following 26 community learning sessions and 11 commission meetings listed 60 recommendations related to criminal justice reform for the executive branch and administrative agencies, the state Legislature and local governments.

One of the most noteworthy recommendations is that the state ban officers from entering a home without announcing their presence. The recommendation echoes growing demands to ban “no-knock” search warrants after Breonna Taylor was killed when police forced their way into her Kentucky home in March.

States like Oregon, Florida and Virginia already have instituted such bans.

Activists argue no-knock warrants increase the likelihood of excessive force against minorities, but legislators have been cautious to commit to “taking a tool out of the toolbox” for police, the Associated Press reported.

Another recommendation urged legislators to prevent any officer fired for “egregious offenses” from being rehired at a different law enforcement agency.

Five bills that addressed these recommendations have stalled in committee. Chairmen and chairwomen of committees overseeing these bills said a rewrite of the state’s emergency and other criminal justice bills took priority in a busy session, The Associated Press reported.

A bill introduced by Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, that would require police to collect race data from traffic stops did not receive a hearing in committee.

Shannon Portillo, a co-chair of the governor’s commission and Douglas County Commissioner, said she would have liked to see more reforms make their way into approved legislation but that the commission is looking beyond this year. Portillo said she was optimistic that efforts to work with legislators on these reforms would be more fruitful in the future.

The commission began work in January on a 2021 report focused on the social factors, including economics and education, that can lead to racial inequities in health care in Kansas.

A midyear report in July and a final report in December will be sent to the governor recapping work and recommendations.

“Individuals and communities across Kansas have made clear that racial equity and justice are important to them,” Portillo said. “I am excited that a number of local governments have taken up our recommendations as have state agencies. As we continue with our work … I am sure this interest will grow, and we’ll continue to move forward together.”

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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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