An Office of Community Complaints case file. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

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A Kansas City Police Department officer calls someone a racial slur. 

That might sound like racial bias, but if a complaint is filed with the department’s community oversight board, it won’t necessarily be labeled that way. 

Kansas City, Missouri-area police accountability organizations say the discrepancy hides how often race plays a role in police misconduct. Now, they’re calling on the Department of Justice to investigate bias both inside the KCPD and its oversight board. 

Complaint categorization isn’t an exact science

There are six categories under which complaints can be filed by the Office of Community Complaints: bias-based policing, discourtesy, excessive use of force, harassment, improper member conduct and improper procedure.

Racial slurs are categorized as “discourtesy,” a label that includes “circumstances where the actions or statements of a Department member were in violation of the Code of Ethics or Rules of Conduct of the Department based upon the context of the contact with the complainant.”

“When we categorize complaints, it’s based on the narrative given to us by the complainant,” said Merrell Bennekin, executive director of the Office of Community Complaints. “It’s our best guess based on what was told to us on the complaint form and the interview that happens in first contact.”

Lora McDonald, executive director of the social justice organization MORE2, said classifying on intake is a mistake.

“They’re classifying before investigating,” she said. “How can you decide if there was bias before investigating?”

Bias-based policing is defined as “circumstances where the police actions of a member were substantially based on the race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disabilities, or national origin of a person, rather than upon lawful and appropriate police procedures.”

Bennekin said while the use of a racial slur can indicate bias-based policing, the final categorization decision depends on the totality of the circumstances. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual staff at the office to determine how a complaint should be classified. 

There is also a chance to reclassify a complaint after it’s been investigated.

“Maybe a complaint was mischaracterized, someone came in and complained about harassment and we look at the videotape and there’s no misconduct, but there’s profanity,” he said. “We can reclassify once the (investigation file) comes back.”

Bias-based policing category is used rarely

Data from the office shows the discourtesy category is used far more often than bias-based policing. In 2020, there were only four complaints classified as bias-based policing, compared to 23 classified as discourtesy. 

The Office of Community Complaints does not release how it categorized specific allegations to the public. A brief narrative of each complaint is published online in the department’s annual reports, along with whether it was substantiated. 

The AdHoc Group Against Crime is one of three community organizations that accepts complaint forms from the public and turns them over to the Office of Community Complaints. Damon Daniel, AdHoc’s president, said the definitions of complaint categories give KCPD plausible deniability against claims of racial bias. 

“When you define the situation, you can control the narrative,” Daniel said. 

Bennekin said before 2009, his office tried sending complaints listing multiple categorizations to Internal Affairs, but the practice resulted in confusion for investigators. Eventually, they agreed to classify complaints based on the most egregious infraction. 

“You’d have four, five or six allegations in a single complaint,” said Karen Williams, a senior legal analyst with the office. “Now we tend to go with the biggest.”

Category definitions haven’t been updated in recent history

Bennekin said the definitions staff use today were approved by the Board of Police Commissioners in 2004. There used to be 10 categories, with more in-depth subcategories, but those have since been combined. 

Before the shift in 2004, the use of racial slurs was its own category, as was racial profiling. Other categories, like officer conduct, were further broken down to clarify the type of infraction. The office did not begin releasing category data online until after the change was made, so The Kansas City Beacon could not get data on the number of complaints filed as racial slurs or profiling.

Williams said larger oversight offices are able to break down their definitions into more specific categories, but Kansas City doesn’t have the staff necessary for such an in-depth analysis. The Office of Community Complaints has a staff of five, including three legal analysts who look over each complaint and assign them to a category. 

If the office wanted to change its categories again, the Board of Police Commissioners would have to give final approval. Local advocates say board approval poses a big issue when it comes to reforming the complaints process.

Activists call for federal intervention into biased policing

The Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the AdHoc Group Against Crime are part of a coalition calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the KCPD and its auxiliary functions, including the Office of Communiy Complaints and the Board of Police Commissioners, for patterns of racial bias and discrimination. 

“If I’m looking at (complaints), and I see an abundance of cases where community Black people have claimed that they have been referred to as the N word or subjected to racial epithets, I don’t care what you label it,” said Gwendolyn Grant, the president and CEO of Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “This is enough evidence right here to tell me we’ve got a problem here. You can call it discourteous if you want to, but it’s a racial problem and a civil rights issue.”

Grant said that while the public can’t access information on how complaints were categorized, Justice Department investigators would be able to do so, shedding light on where the line is drawn when it comes to discourtesy versus bias-based policing. 

For its part, the Office of Community Complaints reviews its policies every five years, and works with the Board of Police Commissioners to make changes as necessary. Bennekin said there could be further discussions with the board about how to release category information.

Executive Director of the Office of Community Complaints, Merrell Bennekin (center), meets with employees of the office to review ongoing complaints against Kansas City Police Department Officers. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Daniel said that reform within the current system would only be possible with buy-in from police leaders.

“The leadership needs to have the will to want to do it,” he said. “And I haven’t seen the will to do it. If the will was there within the current leadership, then the structure might work. But because of that lack, it’s not working.” 

Grant said she has no faith in any reforms made without federal intervention. She would like the Justice Department to engage in a process similar to its Ferguson investigation and require immediate reforms be put into action. 

“We think that will force the Board of Police Commissioners to do its job, and it will certainly shed light on the depth and the magnitude of the problem,” she said.

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.