Wichita has spent $150,000 on legal fees in defense of police gang list

By: - November 29, 2022 9:46 am
A judge's gavel on top of a pile of $100 bills

After the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed filed a class action lawsuit over Wichita police’s use of a gang list, the City of Wichita has spent more than $150,000 on the litigation. The parties face a Dec. 1 deadline to reach a settlement or proceed with depositions that would add to the cost. (Getty Images)

TOPEKA — The City of Wichita has paid a private law firm more than $150,000 in legal fees to defend itself from litigation over the police department’s use of a gang list.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed filed a class action lawsuit against the city in April 2021, arguing that Wichita police target Black and Latino residents who are placed on the gang list with little or no evidence and subjected to severe consequences.

Kansas Reflector obtained a copy of the city’s contract with the Fisher, Patterson, Sayler and Smith law firm in Topeka, as well as monthly payments, through a Kansas Open Records Act request.

The city and organizations involved in the litigation face a Dec. 1 deadline to settle. Otherwise, the ACLU and Appleseed plan to proceed with a series of depositions that could significantly add to city expenses.

“Budgets are moral documents, and any money that is coming out of a government’s budget is money that could be spent on something else,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. “The goal is not to to make this an expensive, time-consuming process for the City of Wichita, or deprive the residents of Wichita of other services that they rightly deserve. It’s to hold law enforcement accountable.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Progeny, an advocacy group that describes itself as “a youth-adult partnership focused on reimagining the juvenile justice system and reinvestment into community-based alternatives.”

Wichita police officers have unilateral power to designate a resident as a gang member based on unreliable evidence or even without evidence, the organizations claim. Under police policy, residents may be placed on the list because of the color of clothing they wear, the people they know, the businesses they visit, or the neighborhood were they live. There is no way for an individual to challenge being placed on the list.

Individuals on the gang list are subjected to constant surveillance, harassment, and housing and employment discrimination. Those who are convicted of a crime face higher bond amounts, more severe probation and parole conditions, and longer sentences.

“I have gotten pulled over so many times with police using the gang list as an excuse to search my car — never receiving a ticket but constantly harassed,” Dante Bristow, a youth leader with Progeny, told Kansas Reflector in April 2021.

The city’s population is 62.8% white, 17.2% Latino and 10.9% Black. For the gang list, 60% of individuals are Black, 25% Latino and 6% white.

Brett said the gang list policy is problematic because it is broad and vague; lacks due process; doesn’t let people know how they can conform their conduct to avoid being on the list; and being on the list has significant consequences.

“We are sympathetic to the idea that the Wichita Police Department has the interest in preventing gang violence within the city and that members of the Wichita community want to make sure that they are safe,” Brett said. “The problem is that the way it’s been used in practice has been overly inclusive, and that has come at the expense of residents’ constitutional rights. That’s why we brought the lawsuit.”

Records provided by the city show monthly invoices have added up to $150,679.68 since the start of the case, including $37,572.66 for November.

The contract pays hourly fees of $200 for top attorneys at the firm, $160 for associates, $90 for paralegals and $45 for clerks. Travel is billed at half the hourly rate, excluding travel between Topeka and Wichita.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.

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