Democratic Kansas statehouse candidates on the issues: Racial equality and policing practices

Demonstrators gathered in Shawnee to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement earlier this summer.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of this summer’s primary elections. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for Democratic candidates running for seats in the Kansas House.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we have the candidates’ responses to item three:

What’s your view on the state of racial equality in relation to policing practices and the criminal justice system in Kansas? What changes would you support?

Kansas House District 22

Lindsay Vaughn

Systemic racism is built into the fabric of our society. It exists in ourselves in the form of implicit bias, and in our governments, communities, and institutions–including, and perhaps especially, in the criminal justice system and policing. This legacy of inequality was amplified during the War on Drugs and continues in many ways today, which has led to wildly disproportionate numbers of Black people who are subject to police brutality and are incarcerated and disenfranchised.

According to 2010 census data, 6% of our population in Kansas is black, yet black people make up 28% of our adult prison and jail population. This means African Americans are over represented in our criminal justice system at nearly five times their percentage of the state population. This huge disparity is due to mass incarceration, which is driven by policing inequities and unequal enforcement, sentencing, and legal representation, among other factors.

Fixing our criminal justice system starts with fixing policing. As Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement have shown, police brutality and over-policing are a problem. 84% of black adults say white people are treated better than black people by police, and 63% of white adults agree.

A number of police departments in Johnson County have started taking steps to address these issues. Some are purchasing more body cams, and Roeland Park and Overland Park have implemented Crisis Intervention Training. The state also requires all police departments to report racial profiling and provide racial bias training. As many activists are now suggesting, though, increasing our investment in police in order to solve over-policing may be counter-productive. Instead, part of the solution likely includes diverting funds to mental health professionals and county social services, among other agencies. We also need to establish and support effective citizen review boards for police misconduct.

Other factors that need to be addressed to fix our criminal justice system include: implementing drug/accountability courts that provide prison alternatives for non-violent or mentally ill offenders; increasing our use of diversion; implementing restorative justice community boards; legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana; and reforming bail, civil asset forfeiture, and sentencing laws.

Comprehensive criminal justice reform is necessary to start dismantling systemic racism in our community and state and to keep more families together, reduce recidivism, and ultimately lower the huge cost of maintaining the current prison system– about $415 million annually.

Randen Smith

I have thought for a very long time that our country needs policing reform on a state and federal level. So many incidents are caught on camera where we can see with our own eyes the racial injustices being committed by law enforcement. There has been a non-accountability problem in our system from the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court Doctrine of Qualified Immunity. Which gives law enforcement a green light to commit atrocities and violate citizens rights often with people of color. This doctrine shields law enforcement with such a degree of protection that citizens cannot overcome the burden to show in court for damages or for any police criminal accountability. Currently, there is legislation in Congress to end Qualified Immunity and I would support legislation to end it in our state. Ending this doctrine or even changing the test requirement from was it reasonable to was it necessary would be much needed reform in itself to prevent law enforcement from becoming unjust.

Also, I would support bail reform. A citizen can be arrested and be required to post bail as a motivation to have them return on a future court date. Many times low income and or people of color cannot post bail or hire bail bondsmen and then are confined to jail to await trial. Moreover, a person can lose their home, children, job and other resources from being able to fight charges in court because they are held in jail. Studies show the majority of people without bail still show up to their court dates. This is a terrible government policy and shouldn’t be imposed on a person unless there is significant evidence to committing a crime before trial.

In addition, I would support an examination of policing budgets to see if some appropriations in funding might be better served with helping low income communities on mental health and develop other resources in the communities instead of using law enforcement to keep communities safe. Also, Governor Laura Kelly’s new Commission on Racial Equity and Justice is a much needed approach to examining solutions. I hope the commission can address and make recommendations to change from what I’ve mentioned and go even further to prevent racial disparities with the criminal justice system. The most effective change is changing our laws to create a standard of safeguards and equity protections so injustices aren’t committed.

Kansas House District 39

Michael Bolton

It has been Kansas law since 2011 that every law enforcement agency have in place a racial or biased-base policing policy. It is a rather detailed law with instructions that allows for complaints to be considered publicly. Kansas is indeed ahead of many states on this subject.

However, the criminal justice system is to insure due process. If so, then we should fund and staff the over worked dedicated public defender’s office with the same effort we fund our prosecutors. If you have little means the criminal justice system will assign your case to a public defender handling 50 or 60 cases with guidelines as to how many hours they can give their client. If you have modest means the criminal justice system will grind you down until you can go no further and you plea out. If you are a person of means then finances aren’t an issue and you can afford to wait on due process.
Prosecutors don’t have to pay for investigators and collaborate with the police but public defenders have to pay for investigators and have no collaboration with the police. How about fair due process? Both are employed by the state and yet taxpayer dollars are used to pay for investigators for the prosecution but not the public defender? Shouldn’t the investigator work for both sides to uncover the unbias truth?
The criminal justice system is to insure justice is served and yet there is no balance so how can we be assured that true justice was served. The criminal justice system in my opinion is innately bias against the poor and if you are a person of color and poor the system is stacked against you. Justice wears a blindfold to seek out the truth and then mead out justice. We need to unstack the deck to insure lady justice is well served, not just served.

Les Lampe

As a white male, my interactions with police have been neutral if not positive. I understand my black brothers and sisters may have a different experience. It has been crucial for me to educate myself on the experiences and stories of those who do not look like me.

The state of racial equality in relation to policing practices and the criminal justice system in Kansas is improving, but changes are still needed. We value officers’ commitment to public health and safety, but every profession needs to be held to a high level of accountability. When you look at the local statistics, it is clear law enforcement has not been held fully accountable

First, let’s look at examples of progress. Kansas statute 22-4610 requires all local law enforcement agencies to adopt policies explicitly addressing racial profiling, to train all law enforcement officers on processes to avoid biased-based policing, and to file an annual report on the status of complaints about racial profiling. Local cities and counties are encouraged to set up community advisory boards to oversee policing practices. However, it appears very few law enforcement agencies complete the annual report required by statute 22-4610. Also, even though records of racial or other bias-based complaints are available, the resolution of the complaints is often unclear. In addition, most agencies do not collect information that reports ethnicity of those with traffic or other citations.

Evidence of racial biases can be found in statistics kept by the Kansas Department of Corrections. In 2018, while only about 6% of the Kansas population was black, 28% of the prison inmates were black. Also, it’s reported that black and white populations in Kansas use marijuana at similar rates of about 16 or 17%, yet the incarceration rate for black Kansans for marijuana possession is 4.8 times higher than for whites.

Major changes I would recommend:

  • More rigorous enforcement of KSA 22-4610 and requiring all law enforcement agencies to report data that defines the extent of racial profiling.
  • Set up a commission that reports to the legislature the frequency of racial profiling in the state and recommendations to minimize biased-based policing. This commission should also make recommendations on practices to reduce the use of force by law enforcement agencies.
  • Require every major law enforcement agency in the state to have a community advisory board actively charged with minimizing racial profiling within that agency.
  • Support practices to recruit and promote black leadership in all law enforcement agencies.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item five:

Gov. Laura Kelly and Majority Leader Jim Denning reached a compromise plan on Medicaid expansion this session — though it did not pass. Did you support their compromise? If not, what would you have wanted to see changed?