Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor Tyrone Garner has removed a prominent social justice advocate from a law enforcement advisory board, another episode in long-simmering tensions between local government, police and the community.
Garner emailed Rick Behrens, senior pastor at Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, saying he was no longer assigned to the law enforcement advisory board last week, just a year after Garner appointed him.
The 15-member advisory committee was created in 2006 under an agreement with the United States Department of Justice and was intended to resolve issues of racism and bias complaints filed against the Kansas City Police Department, Kansas and the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office.
Garner told KCUR that KCKPD Chief Karl Oakman, Sheriff Daniel Soptic and District Attorney Mark Dupree have called for Behrens’ removal. But each of them denied it, saying Garner had not consulted them about his appointment.
Behrens has long been an outspoken critic of the police department and a leader in MORE2, the Metropolitan organization for racial and economic equity. Behrens has frequently spoken at rallies and vigils organized to protest the police department’s reluctance to address former KCKPD detective Roger Golubski’s past allegations of racist and sexist corruption. Golubski now faces federal charges of rape, kidnapping and assisting in a sex trafficking ring.
The creation of the board came after a particularly troubling incident. In November 2005, 20 white Kansas City, Kansas police officers disrupted a black teenager’s birthday party, allegedly beating and pepper spraying the boys while using racial and sexual slurs. In addition to the agreement with the Justice Department, the counsel is also required under one of the City and County Unified Government ordinances.
Behrens said he has been working to make the council more active and away from being the “rubber stamp” it has been since 2006. Prior to 2022, there is no record of the council giving advice of any kind to police or the state. sheriff, Behrens said.
“The reality is this board hasn’t done anything for 16 years and when it started doing anything, you cut off the snake’s head,” Behrens said.
Garner said the challenges to Behrens’ nomination were “insurmountable”.
“It’s been problematic for me when I get calls from the criminal justice system that basically indicated that they didn’t feel like they could be a part of the Law Enforcement Advisory Committee agenda because of the direction and some of the communications and some of the things that didn’t feel really conducive to building and improving police-community relationships,” he said.
According to the UG ordinance that created the council, its 15 members consist of one appointee each from the 10 commissioners of the Unified Governing Council and three appointed by the sheriff. The Chair of the Committee on Human Relations and Disabilities is a permanent appointment. And the appointment of the mayor is the chairman of the council. The ordinance is mum on how long each appointee will serve.
One of the sticking points appears to be the recent community listening sessions, said Behrens, which he helped co-organize with other board members. The meetings were prompted in a past board audit and the first was held on February 8.
Despite what Garner said, the three heads of the law enforcement community denied asking or consulting with him about Behrens’ appointment.
Dupree was the sole law enforcement leader at the February 8 meeting, held at the Beatrice Lee Community Center.
“District Attorney Dupree has not, has not and will not seek the removal of anyone from the board,” said Jonathan Carter, his spokesman.
Oakman said the mayor does not consult with the department about his appointees or their removal from volunteer committees.
“The mayor has made it clear that his decisions are up to him alone, and this one appears to be no different,” Oakman said.
Soptic, the county sheriff, said he has no control over who Garner appoints or removes from the council.
“One of the responsibilities I have is to continue to find ways to build community engagement and trust with our community,” Soptic said in a statement. “To achieve this goal, I will continue to partner with Chief Oakman and Mayor Garner in their efforts that share the same goals.”
Irene Caudillo is an advisory board member and president and chief executive officer of El Centro, which provides educational, social, and economic services for Hispanic families. She said she was surprised by Garner’s move, but that it’s her appointment to make her own. Caudillo, who was nominated by Soptic, said she wants to talk to him about what the board is trying to do.
“I want to open up these lines of communication, so it’s not us against them,” she said. “That was never the intent.”
However, Garner’s actions raise questions about her board nominations process.
“There’s a little concern about, ‘OK, well, am I next?’” Caudillo said.
Garner has already found a replacement for Behrens. He said he will soon announce the appointment of an “impartial, independent, neutral” person who will reopen the lines of communication between the council and law enforcement.
“I don’t want to preempt any announcements, but I can tell that the person I have identified is a very respected person in this community who has been involved with the police and the community for years,” he said.
The remaining listening sessions will take place on 12 April, 14 June and 9 August.