Johnson County’s two top law enforcement officials raised eyebrows with comments they made recently at a “Back the Blue” rally in Overland Park.
At the event, Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who is running unopposed on the general election ballot, spoke of protecting neighborhoods from being “terrorized” by protesters who have been demanding police accountability reforms in cities across the U.S. this summer, including in Overland Park and Prairie Village.
Hayden also said he had 100 officers “ready for any social unrest” on Election Day and afterwards.
In turn, District Attorney Steve Howe, who is facing his first contested reelection campaign in 12 years, spoke about a St. Louis couple who have gained a measure of notoriety for brandishing firearms outside their home as protesters walked by in June. That couple was arrested and later indicted by a grand jury for unlawful use of a weapon. But Howe said if something similar were to happen in Johnson County, the “right people” would be arrested, an apparent reference to protesters.
Still, with a week to go before Election Day, both Hayden and Howe now say Johnson Countians should not be worried about post-election violence or social unrest.
“Even though there’s a lot of rancor out there among people of different views I think people will be respectful. I don’t anticipate any problems,” Howe told the Post in a recent interview.
Howe’s Democratic opponent, criminal defense attorney Zach Thomas, also says he doubts that social disruption will become a problem locally after the election.
“It’s Johnson County. Despite the passion for politics I think the Midwestern mentality of being calm and collected will prevail,” he said. “Law enforcement will be out and available for either side.”
Despite election anxiety, JoCo in a ‘really good place’
Election anxiety has ramped up throughout the country, to the point that some law enforcement agencies in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere are reportedly cancelling time off for officers and running strategies to deal with potential post-election unrest. Facebook, one of the biggest purveyors of news and election-related information in the country, has also reportedly made plans to try and keep the discourse calm and free of disinformation leading up to Election Day and after.
The rally where Howe and Hayden spoke took place Oct. 10 and came at the tail end of a parade of vehicles in support of President Donald Trump, which drew thousands of drivers and spectators to an area near 119th and Metcalf in Overland Park.
The remarks about protest marches, coming from the county’s two top law enforcement officials attracted a fair amount of social media attention.
The Post covered the event and reported Hayden’s comments saying he had 100 officers ready for social unrest and that departments in Overland Park and Olathe also are prepared.
Invited by the Post more recently to clarify that statement, Hayden said he was talking about the officers in his department who have received training in how to deal with protests and unrest. He had not planned any special extra staffing for post-election, he said.
Likewise, he said his remark to rally goers that, “We’ll stand strong for you because if they come here, they’ve come to the wrong place,” was directed at people who become violent or destroy property during protests, not peaceful protesters.
Hayden said Johnson County is “in a really good place,” and has generally been free of the friction that has occurred in protests in Lawrence and Kansas City, Mo. That’s partly due, he said, to law officers’ efforts to build good community relations.
If Johnson County has a problem after the election, it may be a reaction to unrest in other parts of the country, he said: “I think the longer it takes to tally the votes, the more stress there will be and if anything’s going to happen, I think we need to be ready for that.”
Hayden said he will support peaceful protests
As long as protests stay peaceful and don’t break the law, Hayden said, “We’ll support them. We’ll support them with everything we’ve got.”
But on the other hand, he said he’d also be prepared to step in if things got violent – even if unasked by cities with their own police departments.
“We have 17 different agencies, 17 different city councils, 17 different mayors and there are ideas about how they want to govern their cities and that’s just a fact,” Hayden said. “That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. But they also have different ideas about keeping the peace.”
If violence is allowed to go unchecked, he said, his office would have no choice but to step in, even unbidden. He used recent conflicts in Kansas City and Portland as examples of what would rise to that level of unrest.
“We don’t have the option of just standing by and doing nothing,” he said, adding, “If you come here to do harm to our residents or our citizens or damage their property or block their streets you’ve come to the wrong place because we’re going to deal with it.”
Hayden also said he was hurt by suggestions that his comments could be seen as racist: “But we keep the peace in Johnson County. That’s not racist. That’s what we’re charged to do.”
Hayden, who has appeared in a television ad in uniform supporting Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roger Marshall, does not have an opponent in this election. He said as an elected sheriff, he is exempted from federal restrictions on public employees campaigning or conducting political activity.
Howe’s opponent Zack Thomas weighs in
But Howe is facing an election contest, and some of his remarks at the Overland Park rally gave his opponent Thomas pause.
Howe, a Republican, mentioned Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who were recorded earlier this summer outside their front door with firearms as protesters walked on their street. Howe said if something similar happened in Johnson County, “the right people are going to get arrested.”
The McCloskeys, who were on hand in Overland Park as Howe spoke, were only trying to defend their property and family, and, “it disgusts me that there are prosecutors out there who won’t do their job,” he said at the rally. The couple was indicted by a grand jury of felony unlawful use of a weapon. Charges against some protesters were dropped.
There were differing accounts of that incident, and Thomas said Howe ought not to make comments like that unless he had some new information that the McCloskeys were totally in the clear.
But Thomas said Howe’s comments incite fear and anger in a politically charged incident.
“The purpose of the prosecutor is to apply the law, not to pick and choose which one gets prosecuted and which ones are deemed on a stage to be appropriate and honorable,” Thomas said.
Howe responded that he watched videos of it and is “well aware of the facts.”
Thomas also noted that Howe did not support stand-your-ground self-defense claims in three Johnson County cases in which the alleged shooters are Black. In one case, the jury found the defendant not guilty of all counts in a road rage incident, “but that man’s life was ruined.” His record has since been wiped clean, and Thomas said he has permission to speak of it.
“To say something at a political rally is one thing, to say it to incite fear and hate and anger, that’s another thing,” Thomas said. “And then to know that you don’t do that in practice – that’s hypocrisy.”
He added, “When Steve Howe gets up on stage and says, ‘We’ll make sure the right people are arrested,’ what does ‘right’ mean?”
Howe said he cannot talk about pending cases or the one where the record was expunged. But he said every case is prosecuted according to its own particular facts.
“In self-defense cases, it absolutely is essential that we review the facts and apply the law in every single case. So, it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he said.
The defendants’ race does not play a part, Howe said. “That has nothing to do with it. It never does have anything to do with it.”
Thomas said the discord in some cities happened at least in part because people feared politics was playing a role in how people were prosecuted. “An unequal application of the law causes problems,” he said.
On the other hand, Thomas said, he wouldn’t hesitate to prosecute any protesters who break the law.
“If you’re a protestor and you start to destroy other people’s property or raise havoc on the streets or attack law enforcement, I will prosecute you as well,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Steve Howe’s comments about the “right people” being arrested during protests has been clarified to make it clear who he appeared to be referencing.