Kansas House candidates on the issues: Police, transparency and the racial justice movement

Educators and families marched and protested near Westridge Middle School this summer following the killing of George Floyd.

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

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #4:

Is action needed in the Legislature to ensure that all Kansans are treated fairly at the hands of police and government institutions in the wake of the racial justice movement? Do you believe Kansas records and meetings laws guarantee sufficient transparency?

Kansas House District 14

Angela Schweller (Democrat)

I respect our law enforcement here in Johnson County and value the safety they provide to our community. However, we are at a time in our country where we can no longer ignore the inequities and racial disparities that also exist. I believe in working together with our law enforcement to evaluate where additional training is needed. Is there sufficient education and training on implicit bias, de-escalation, and mental health? Where can we improve? Transparency also needs to be addressed, as it is how people in power earn our trust. This could be in the form of body cameras on police officers, as well as sufficient access to records and investigations. I would like to see more active collaboration between government and groups like SURJ, NAACP, MORE2 to come up with tangible plans to tackle the racial disparities in our community.

Charlotte Esau (incumbent Republican)

Our local police forces in Johnson County, including the sheriff’s department and more specifically the Lenexa and Olathe departments, have done an incredible job training their officers to de-escalate tense situations and to safely deal with the many calls to the police that come when an individual’s mental health issues have spiraled out of control. The mental health first aid training they receive, which I encourage all Johnson County citizens to take when it’s offered again (info here), is a great start to helping our officers understand many of the situations they face daily.

As for transparency in records and meetings, we have good laws on the books now; those dealing with records may need to be improved and I know the Judicial Committees have considered changes in that regard and I’m open to voting for improvements. I have and will continue to support policies and funding that increase transparency and trust between citizens and law enforcement. On a broader note, the unrest we’ve seen across the country over injustice is troubling. Addressing real concerns must happen but rioting and destroying communities is not helpful. Many of those communities will struggle for years to recover. Destruction of property does not bring about justice for those harmed, whether they were harmed by out-of-control law enforcement, discrimination (in any form), or are the victims of the riots. I do not believe our legislature needs to take specific action on this in Kansas but will continue to support policies that ensure all our citizens are treated with dignity, fairness, and respect.

Kansas House District 16

Linda Featherston (Democrat)

At minimum, we need to evaluate current Kansas statutes to insure that all Kansans are treated fairly regardless of race, gender or orientation. The Kansas legislature needs to be clear that all are welcome to live, work and raise a family in Kansas. The current heightened awareness of the need for improved racial justice in America presents us a great opportunity in Kansas to make sure we are doing everything we can to have a well trained, professional police force. We need to be sure that police officers are well trained in de-escalation and non-lethal means of enforcement in order to keep everyone in the community safe. We also need to make sure our social workers are well supported by the police, so they can intervene in home conflicts safely. The legislature and the people of Kansas would be well served by continued analysis of arrest statistics, to assess whether there are a disproportionate number of minorities arrested, especially for non-violent crimes.

As far as I know, the current open meetings laws are sufficient. This is certainly an area I would be open to hearing both sides of the debate in order to come up with my own assessment of the situation. As a constituent, I would certainly like to see the recording of all votes in committee and on the floor required by law. I think it is the least legislators can do to keep citizens informed. Representatives in Topeka need to be held accountable for their votes, and I don’t see how this is possible if all votes aren’t recorded.

Rashard Young (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 17

Jo Ella Hoye (Democrat)

I am aware of the platform given to candidates, and I choose my words carefully, because I want to have a positive impact. There is too much hurt and division right now. So, hopefully this is loud and clear. Black Lives Matter. Regarding community policing, I believe that we ask police officers to do too much. We must support local law enforcement by helping them fund regular de-escalation training and staff positions such as mental health first responders. Johnson County is already helping cities by contracting to provide co-responders. 1 in 4 people fatally shot by police are reported to have mental health symptoms. Crisis intervention services are essential. There is no federal requirement to report misconduct of use-of-force data. We must hold police accountable for disproportionate use of force and make our criminal justice system fairer. This is a crucial moment in the fight for racial justice in America. There is room for reform without putting our communities at risk.

Michael Kerner (Libertarian)

No one is above the law, so I propose these changes to ensure that police are responsible for their mistakes and to minimize the circumstances that cause conflict.

  • End “Qualified Immunity”. This will make police civilly liable for misdeeds that harm others. Today, only their employers, i.e. the taxpayers, are liable. I assume police will then want to buy malpractice insurance, like what doctors routinely buy. It will then be up to the insurance carriers to determine the risk involved in view of a given officer’s record, no matter where in the nation he moves. They can adjust premiums or refuse to issue a policy for a dangerous officer.
  • We need to end the Drug War altogether. It is the excuse for no-knock raids that have killed many people, sometimes in their sleep. It is the innocent people, where a wrong address is the target, that are the most likely to die. They do not expect a police search warrant and assume a home invasion. Actual drug dealers usually give up without a fight.
  • End Civil Asset Forfeiture altogether. This is a financial incentive for bad policing. It can cost innocent people money, cars and even homes.
    I suggest we establish civilian review boards to investigate use of force incidents to decide if there should be any criminal charges or human resource actions for police misbehavior. It should not be left to police management or District Attorneys to make that call.
  • Any videos of an incident should be immediately available to the interested parties without having to go to court to see it. Likewise, affidavits that supported a search warrant should be available whether criminal charges result or not.
  • Whistle blowing Officers should be protected from retaliation for doing the right thing.

Kristine Sapp (Republican)

The horrible events which unfolded earlier this year were racist and inexcusable. However, I value and respect our law enforcement officers. I believe the vast majority are good yet, we all know evil infiltrates even the most sacred and respected industries. We have a responsibility to remove those individuals immediately and to increase the training our law enforcement officers receive. Our legislators need to focus on requested resources and listen to the leadership of our departments so our law enforcement agencies can continue to improve and do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Regarding the KOMA and KORA we should always strive to do better in all of government and the means being more transparent. Transparency builds trust, allows wrongs to be addressed and permits change and improvements within all departments. An important step and example is the recent bill passed which directs law enforcement officers equipped with body cams, to activate the cameras at specific times, specifies how long recordings must be kept and requires footage be available to families and attorneys to be turned over timely.

Kansas House District 18

Cindy Neighbor (incumbent Democrat)

I believe that more training is always better. We need to look at the methods used for apprehension in different situations, but I do not believe in “defunding the police.” The police in my area are well trained, professional, and courteous. They work with Social Workers on calls that require special assistance which helps de-escalate situations. They are active in our community.

I say this realizing that not all communities have the same experiences. We need to make sure that transparency is paramount, while working within the confines of the law. We also need to relay the facts and not just what one wants to hear.

Cathy Gordon (Republican)

I support our police forces. They go above and beyond in not just “law and order” but community service. They are seen giving back daily in their time talent and treasure.

I also support a strong military. I look forward to our future with the AIR SPACE program and cybersecurity. I hope that Kansas can continue to work strong to capture the Air Space program here.

Kansas House District 20

Jane Dirks (Republican)

I am always open to reviewing our laws to ensure fairness for all, we should not be afraid to do so.  However, I do believe our law enforcement, both locally and in the state, do a wonderful job and I support fully funding the police including additional training where that is needed.  As to transparency, I believe that can always be improved.  For instance, much of the work in the legislature is done in committee, and votes are not required to be recorded. I believe they should be recorded so people can track who voted for and against legislation throughout the process, not just on a final vote.

Mari-Lynn Poskin (Democrat)

The problem with three word slogans, particularly for a topic as complex and layered as racial justice, is that they can not portray the full picture and force us to take an US vs THEM mentality. This never has, nor will it ever, help us progress and fulfill the promise of the great American experiment in equality. I like to visualize movements as a Venn diagram, so we can clearly see the overlap and areas of common opportunity. Then we have to see where we can personally contribute to any given movement.

Black lives have consistently NOT mattered on equal footing with white lives. Our institutions and codified policies contribute to systemic racism and white privilege is real. Period. White privilege does not lessen any individual’s struggles, work ethic or earned status. It simply means that their skin color was not a detracting factor in their journey. As a Kansas House Representative, I believe there are clear actions we can take to remove skin color as a detracting factor in public policy for our neighbor’s journey. As well, my Christian faith tradition commands me to “Love My Neighbor as Myself.”

My opponent is corralling fear when she promises to “fully fund the police,” since it is not the role of the state legislature to do so. I requested to meet with our Leawood and OP police chiefs to find out what they really need from our state legislature to support them. Chief Donchez was clear- the legislature needs to fund mental health services to support our police. That has always been a priority on my platform. I drove one of OP’s finest to soccer practice for years and my lifelong best friend has been a police officer since 1984. Supporting our police and ensuring that all are treated fairly are complementary, not oppositional, actions.

I do not believe that our current Kansas records and meetings laws guarantee sufficient transparency.

Kansas House District 21

Jerry Stogsdill (incumbent Democrat)

I believe our law enforcement professionals have a near impossible job these days. I have every confidence in our law enforcement officers in my Legislative District. That being said I do think it would be beneficial to form a legislative committee to study ways that would help law enforcement better do their jobs, that would ensure the fair and humane treatment of ALL Kansans and to make sure that we are providing our law enforcement community with all the tools they need to do their jobs professionally, humanely, transparently and safely. This committee should be formed with the inclusion of leaders from law enforcement, the mental health community, district attorneys, educators, community leaders, faith leaders and those responsible for our incarceration institutions. Every profession should occasionally hold such a review to make sure it is doing the best job possible.
One thing we certainly need to do is to make sure we upgrade our mental health facilities and programs so that law enforcement has access to the programs and facilities they need to help citizens who are having episodes that should not require them to be jailed but require them to access mental health care. Our mental health programs and facilities were decimated under the Brownback administration. We have certainly made improvements during the Kelly administration but there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that people in crisis are able to count on our law enforcement officers to get them to the proper facilities where they can receive help.

Bob Reese (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 23

Susan Ruiz (incumbent Democrat)

Action is needed in the Legislature and Gov. Kelly established the Kansas Commission on Racial Equality and Justice. The feedback they have received from Kansans asked them to focus on updating Police Officer Standards and Training. The African American Police Association is also asking for an update in their training that would include looking back to the origins of law enforcement as “slave patrols” and move away from that mindset. Criminal justice reform is also badly needed in our country and state. There needs to be more collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Legislature to reduce the number of incarcerations by the use of Diversion for non-violent crimes. Also, to reduce the sentences for non-violent drug crimes by the use of Diversion to access mental health and/or substance abuse treatment. Legalizing cannabis would have the largest impact on the incarcerated, thus reducing the prison population and costs to the Department of Corrections.

The Kansas records and meetings laws is a good start when guaranteeing transparency. However, holding law enforcement officers to the same legal process as anyone else arrested for a crime would go further. I think this would create more transparency and Kansans would have greater trust and respect of our law enforcement officers.

Matthew Clark (Libertarian)

Yes, action is needed by the legislature to ensure everyone is treated fairly at the hands of the police and government institutions. Kansas should expand the use of body worn cameras statewide, this protects the public and law enforcement. Public access to law enforcement footage needs to be much more accessible than it currently is to aid in accountability. The current way Qualified Immunity is applied at the federal level is unacceptable and needs to end. If the federal government will not adopt Justin Amash’s(MI-L) tri-partisan End Qualified Immunity Act, then Kansas should follow Colorado’s lead in ending this doctrine at the state level. Speaking of following Colorado’s lead, we can do so much good for Kansas by legalizing cannabis. It will aid people with certain medical conditions, reduce the number of needless interactions with law enforcement, end the odor based probable cause justification and free up law enforcement, court and prison resources. The legislature can require all departments in the state to adopt the use of force policy change recently adopted by Overland Park Police in the wake of Jon Albers’ killing. This adopts a widely accepted best practice of prohibiting officers from firing at a moving vehicle, with very specific exemptions. I know this policy is in the best interest of our law enforcement. If an officer’s life is in danger from a vehicle driving at them, their time is best spent getting out of the way of that vehicle. Taking the time to shoot at that vehicle can leave them in harm’s way and even if the bullet kills the driver, it does not stop the vehicle which is threatening the officer’s life. Kansas can ban no knock raids and/or start to end the War on Drugs, which accounts for most of the no knock raids. Kansas can require law enforcement to individually carry insurance which can help price bad actors out of the industry. We can pass legislation to help ensure the right to trial by a jury of your peers is a right again, not a penalty by the prosecutor. Finally, we should start to repeal laws for crimes with no victims so that our important law enforcement resources are spent on crimes against people and their property.

Jeff Shull (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 29

Brett Parker (incumbent Democrat)

Yes, action is needed in the Legislature to ensure fair treatment of all Kansans in all government institutions. Current laws provide some levels of transparency, but not enough for our current standards of protection of citizens. We need to address civil asset forfeiture. I support the aims of Kansas Smart Justice reforms, including expanding the use of diversion for nonviolent crimes, reducing sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and increasing social rehabilitation programs for convicted people. Kansas, like the rest of the country, has significant work to do in ensuring that our justice system treats everyone fairly and justly. Racism is systemic and we need to actively work to counteract that.

Jerry Clinton (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 30

Brandon Woodard (incumbent Democrat)

We need to address systematic racism at the local, state, and federal level. While police budgets and standards are set at the city level, we can take a statewide approach to reassess police use of force, body camera laws, criminal justice reform and much more. We, as Kansans, must admit that we have not done enough to listen, address, or act on ending racism and discrimination in our state. We must come together to agree that Black Lives Matter, and that Black, Indegenous, and People of Color are systematically impacted by the barriers in society. While listening to the leaders of the racial justice movement and elevating Black voices is a start, it’s not enough. I am committed to working with our state leaders, while also partnering with Federal and local governments to ensure that we end the systematic racism. To address transparency and fairness in our justice and governmental system, we must work to modernize our Kansas records and meetings laws.

Laura Williams (Republican)

The injustices that have happened to BIPOC are wrong and there is no excuse as to why these lives have been lost. I understand that we need to ensure that everyone is treated fairly here in our state. Racial inequality is real and we each need to do what we can to ensure everyone is treated equally and fair.

I do believe transparency and accountability are key to ensuring that we protect all Kansans. Radical solutions like defunding the police, however, are not the answer. We need to focus on better training and recruiting to our police force, accountability and transparency. That will allow for more information to help people form better conclusions.

As I have begun to understand what we can do better to protect all Kansans, I have reviewed what the police in my community are already doing now. Lenexa Police was one of the first PD in the metro to have body cameras for each officer. They also have mental health first responders and a list of other practices that I believe are a huge step forward in protecting our community. While there is always room for improvement, I am encouraged by how our community is already finding solutions to this issue.

Kansas House District 39

Les Lampe (Democrat)

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 few law enforcement agencies complete the annual report required by statute 22-4610. 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. The Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) and the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) have provisions to allow sufficient transparency, but I believe there is an underlying need for holding the basic meetings and collecting the basic records that would guarantee transparency in the law enforcement process.

Evidence of racial biases can be found in statistics kept by the Kansas Department of Corrections. In 2018, about 6 percent of the Kansas population was black. However, 28 percent of the prison inmates were black.

My recommendations:

  • More rigorous enforcement of KSA 22-4610 and require all law enforcement agencies to report data that defines the extent of racial profiling. This information would be available through KORA.
  • 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. The meetings of the commission would be open through KOMA and the records of the meetings would be open through KORA.
  • Require every major law enforcement agency in the state to have a community advisory board actively charged with minimizing racial profiling within that agency. The activities of these community advisory boards would be subject to KOMA and KORA.
  • Support practices to recruit and promote black leadership in all law enforcement agencies.

Owen Donohoe (incumbent Republican)

As many voters in my district know, I have a very diverse family. My oldest daughter has been married to an African-American man for 31 years. My middle daughter has been married 23 to a first-generation man of Hispanic descent. My youngest daughter has been married 21 years to a man who immigrated from China. Between these three families, I have 13 biracial grandchildren, and one biracial great grandchild who is named after me. My wife and I raised our children to be colorblind, and to know all men are created equal in the eyes of God. I believe this is one of the reasons why, when they were choosing their life partners, color or nationality were of little consequence to them. We’ve had many kitchen table conversations about race relations, interracial marriage, and the impacts of children growing up biracial over the years. Those conversations have been more frequent and more in-depth with the recent events. We were all appalled and deeply disturbed by what happened with George Floyd, as was all Americans. Abuse of power is never acceptable no matter the situation, and more so when it comes from within government. That being said, we cannot attribute the misuse of power by individuals to an entire entity. We must hold individuals who abuse power accountable swiftly and without equivocation. We must also support those men and women who go out and put their lives at risk to protect and serve the community without equivocation. The more transparency and open communication we have within our community the better we will be able to address any issues that arise. I believe all officers should be equipped with body cameras. This assists both the public and the officers when addressing incidents where there is conflict.

I believe we should have as much transparency in state government as possible. Governor Colyer signed a series of executive orders during his time as Governor to begin the process of bringing more transparency to government. He directed cabinet agencies to develop metrics for measuring transparency, and imposed requirements such as making agencies provide increased free copies of open records and a website that would list open executive branch meetings. I would support further measures of bringing more transparency to government. People have a right to know how their lives are being impacted by the decisions being made in the legislature. The more transparency the better.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #5:

Climate change continues to be a major concern for Shawnee Mission Post readers. What steps should the federal government be taking now to address the impact of the changing climate in the coming decades? How would you work to see those steps enacted?