Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, candidates for governor in November, have offered statements affirming racial bias existed in the state’s law enforcement system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt’s new campaign commercials castigate Gov. Laura Kelly for creating in 2020 a Commission on Racial Equality and Justice to search for solutions to problems within Kansas law enforcement agencies.
Ads released Thursday and Friday by the Schmidt campaign ripped the commission and focused on a key message in the attorney general’s end-of-campaign political assault on Kelly. The commercials seek to portray Schmidt as an unblinking supporter of law enforcement, while questioning Kelly’s commitment to public safety. Specifically, the attorney general’s ads one month ahead of the Nov. 8 election asserted the Democratic governor “called Kansas cops racist” and “appointed a woke commission that pushed for anti-policing laws.”
Schmidt took this tack despite affirming in October 2020, in a conversation with members of the governor’s equity and justice commission, that he believed racial bias was present within Kansas law enforcement agencies.
Schmidt’s reply to a question from one of the commissioners, captured on a video posted to YouTube: “Obviously, it does exist.”
“It exists in human relations and so it therefore exists in the subset of human relations that include law enforcement interactions with people,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, told the governor’s commission the challenge of racial bias was enough that law enforcement agencies in the state and the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, the entity that licenses law enforcement officers in Kansas, took seriously allegations leveled against officers and deputies.
Leaders of CPOST and individual law enforcement agencies, especially the state’s larger policing agencies, have shown a commitment to dealing with “implicit or explicit” instances of racial bias, the attorney general said.
“It’s not an also-ran consideration and I give them credit for that,” Schmidt said.
Kelly created the Commission on Racial Equality and Justice one month after millions of Americans watched video of a Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes. Floyd, a Black man, died. Before the Floyd incident, Louisville, Kentucky, resident Breonna Taylor, also Black, was shot to death in her home by police officers. The governor also referenced the hate-crime murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by three white men, including a former police officer.
These and other incidents sparked nationwide protests woven into the Black Lives Matter movement, which took issue with police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black people. Some protests veered into riots.
“The recent protests over police brutality and institutional racism are part of a long tradition used by civil rights activists to compel our country’s leaders to address racial inequity,” Kelly said in 2020. “Americans have once again stood up and raised their voices demanding reform, accountability, transparency and their constitutionally guaranteed rights for all.”
Kelly went on to say elected leaders had to listen, learn and act to thwart racial inequity and injustice in Kansas and elsewhere.
“As governor,” she said, “I am committed to ensuring this latest tragedy does not fade into the next news cycle. Communities of color do not have the luxury of time for leaders to ignore these issues any longer. Systemic racism within law enforcement must end.”
Kelly said that by focusing her commission initially on policing and law enforcement, “we aim to make changes that will improve the safety of both citizens and police officers.”
In response, the commission produced dozens of suggestions in 2020 and 2021 that included modification of policies on use of lethal force, banning fired officers from being hired at other policing agencies and expansion of training to avoid bias.
Commissioners recommended school districts consider alternatives to armed school resource officers by increasing reliance on counselors, social workers and other professionals capable of intervening with students during times of mental health crisis. In addition, the commission proposed school resource officers receive training in implicit bias.
Kelly said in a recent interview with KAKE News the commission’s work wasn’t just an academic exercise. It provided a blueprint that could move the state “steadily towards a more equitable society,” the governor said.
Kelly’s commission included Gordon Ramsay, chief of the Wichita Police Department; Mark Dupree, district attorney of Wyandotte County; Jackson Winsett, assistant vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City; Ernestor De La Rosa, assistant city manager of Dodge City; Catalina Velarde, adjunct professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City law school; Anthony Lewis, superintendent of Lawrence public schools; DeAngela Burns-Wallace, secretary of the Kansas Department of Administration; and Mark McCormick, communications director of the ACLU of Kansas.
During the Johnson County Bar Association’s gubernatorial debate Wednesday between Schmidt and Kelly in Overland Park, the governor said her administration had ushered in “record funding for law enforcement.” Her administration expanded by one-third spending for the Kansas Highway Patrol and the state Department of Corrections.
Schmidt has jurisdiction over the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which operated without a substantial budget increase.
In September, the KBI reported violent crime in Kansas declined 3.4% in 2021 compared to 2020.
Lauren Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the Kelly campaign, said Schmidt “has to lie to Kansans about the governor’s record” in an attempt to distract voters from his partisan alliances with Gov. Sam Brownback. In 2012, Brownback championed tax policy that left the state with massive budget shortfalls resulting in cuts to law enforcement and public schools.
“These false smears won’t work because Kansans know Governor Kelly has worked with both parties to deliver historic investments in law enforcement, including officers having better pay, better equipment, and better family benefits,” Fitzgerald said. “Governor Kelly has always supported our law enforcement and will continue to support meaningful investments that keep us all safe.”
Schmidt’s campaign issued a public safety plan in June. Schmidt’s most recent comments on crime blamed Kelly for importation of illegal drugs, including fentanyl, across the border with Mexico.
C.J. Grover, Schmidt’s campaign spokesman, said Kelly said multiple times Kansas law enforcement was enduring systemic and institutional racism. He said Kelly’s commission was flawed because most members weren’t involved in law enforcement.
He said the attorney general “defended law enforcement to the commission, saying they have accountability programs in place that already work.”
“He was defending the integrity of law enforcement because he, unlike the governor, always backs the blue,” Grover said.
In the latest Schmidt commercial, the attorney general offered voters Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir, who also gave voice to attack lines aimed at Kelly.
Kelly and Schmidt will be on the November gubernatorial ballot with independent candidate Dennis Pyle, a conservative state senator from Hiawatha, and Libertarian Party nominee Seth Cordell.
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