Views from Kansas: Relative justice is a problem

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Your chance of getting justice in court shouldn’t depend on where you live or who governs your city or county.

Yet, it may in Kansas — especially when an unarmed or unthreatening person is gunned down by police.

In four such cases in the state during the past few years, the judicial outcomes have been wildly different — in part because the circumstances in every case are always different, but perhaps also because Kansas is so loosey-goosey with how such cases are investigated and adjudicated.

In two 2017 cases — in the Sun City shooting death of Steven Myers by then-Barber County Undersheriff Virgil “Dusty” Brewer, and the shooting death of Antonio Garcia Jr. by then-Leavenworth police officer Matthew Harrington — the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was called in. The officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter in both cases.

Brewer is accused of shooting a departmentally unapproved bean bag that killed Myers. Harrington is accused of shooting into Garcia’s SUV after the two men tussled at the scene of a domestic call. Garcia allegedly had a pocket knife on his lap, but a KBI agent testified Garcia posed no threat to Harrington.

By contrast, in two officer-involved shootings investigated at the local level, no charges were brought against the officers — in the 2017 shooting death of Andrew Finch by Wichita police officer Justin Rapp, and the 2018 Overland Park shooting of John Albers. In fact, Rapp has filed suit against the city of Wichita for wages lost during his suspension in the case.

The innocent Finch was killed in a “swatting” hoax after an Ohio gamer asked another man to phone in a false report of a homicide and hostage situation at Finch’s home.

In Albers’ case, authorities said the troubled youth piloting the family’s van out of a garage had menaced two officers who’d been called there to check on his welfare. The family disputed that account and ultimately received a $2.3 million settlement from the city of Overland Park.

The teenager’s mother, Sheila Albers, is advocating for the passage of House Bill 2424, a measure in the Kansas Legislature that would require written policies on such cases, outside investigations and release of investigative records when officers aren’t charged.

The bill needs to pass, and should be a no-brainer. The state desperately needs consistency and transparency in officer-involved shooting probes. Protocol and accountability should not vary from city to city, county to county.

“Justice in Kansas completely depends on the community you live in,” Sheila Albers told The Star. “I think it’s hugely problematic.”

More uniformity in investigations might also help produce a badly needed open-to-the-public database of officer-involved shootings — and that information, Albers figures, can help law enforcement departments in their policies, procedures and training.

But while uniform protocols and independent investigations would help, they’re not much use without transparency, which is the key to public trust in law enforcement.

Without the transparency that comes with the release of police records, Albers argues, “Then nothing will change. It will be a checkbox rather than a tool for real improvement.”

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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