Wichita legal fees exceed $267K in defense of ‘absolutely asinine’ gang list

By: - April 21, 2023 9:39 am
A police officer's gun is strapped to his hip

The City of Wichita has spent more than $267,000 in legal fees since being sued over the police department’s use of a gang list, Kansas Reflector learned through an open records request. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Tracey C. Mason Sr. says the City of Wichita’s defense of its police department gang list is about leverage.

Authorities don’t want to treat young Black people as human or equals, Mason said.

The city has spent more than $267,000 in legal fees since being sued over the gang list in April 2021 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Kansas Appleseed. The organizations say police use the list to target Black and Latino residents who are identified as gang members with little or no evidence and then subjected to severe consequences.

“It’s racial profiling of our youth,” Mason said. “The gang list is absolutely asinine. I don’t care what they say. Because it targets. It’s a targeting thing, to give permission for me to treat younger human beings as animals. When you label someone as a gang member, you’re literally saying to all law enforcement officers, all other humanity, that these people are dangerous, and treat them as such.

“I believe it comes from systemic racism. Because no longer can you just holler the word ‘n*****’ out and say, ‘Hang the n*****,’ but this is the way they do it.”

The federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the gang list was filed on behalf of Progeny, a youth advocacy group that works to prevent the incarceration of young people and direct state funds into community-based programs that provide alternatives to incarceration.

The City of Wichita, responding to an open records request, provided Kansas Reflector with a month-by-month accounting of legal fees associated with the federal lawsuit. As of March 30, the city had paid $267,382.47 to the Fisher, Patterson, Sayler and Smith law firm, based in Topeka.

Megan Lovely, spokeswoman for the City of Wichita, declined to answer questions for this story.

“Unfortunately we cannot discuss pending litigation at this time,” Lovely said.

Recent court filings show the two sides are in mediation and working to resolve few, but significant, remaining issues.

In a statement, the ACLU of Kansas said, “As the city continues to work to assess and improve its police department’s relationship with the community, we are hopeful we can reach a resolution in this case that adequately remedies the impacts on those affected and prevents further rights violations, without added expense.”

The Wichita police policy allows officers to place residents on the gang list because of the color of clothes they wear, people they know, businesses they visit or neighborhood where they live. The policy doesn’t allow residents to appeal their placement on the list.

About 10.9% of the city’s residents are Black and 17.2% are Latino, but 60% of people placed on the gang list are Black and 25% are Latino.

Those who are placed 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.

The total cost of legal fees includes invoices for $31,850.10 on Jan. 23, $14,707.16 on March 2 and $31,077.38 on March 30. Some of the costs can be attributed to depositions where topics include internal criticism or acknowledgement of the racial makeup of the gang list, the policy union’s role in policymaking, duties of gang unit officers, and the identity of individuals who oppose reforming the gang list policy.

Mason, a youth advocate in Wichita, said the city could have used the money spent on legal fees to support scholarships, youth rehabilitation centers, mental wellness or grassroots organizations trying to guide youths.

“This is a preventative measure? What does it prevent?” Mason said. “So you got somebody that goes to a birthday party that’s on a gang list around some other gang members. Now you go in and arrest them. What did you prevent? People from rehabilitating?”

Mason said reconciliation between police and the community was unrealistic in his lifetime. Police need to change their whole culture, he said.

But he expressed hope for the next generation.

“More and more youth are becoming upset and angry at the old status quo,” Mason said. “And they’re not trying to do it peacefully, whether people think the new generation is soft or whatever. They’re not soft. They’re just tactful, and they’re getting tired.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.