KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker isn't happy with the way the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department investigates incidents involving members of its police force.
“I believe that your department must find another way to investigate officer-involved incidents,” she said in a pointed letter dated April 1, 2020, to KCPD Chief of Police Rick Smith.
The pretext for Peters Baker’s letter was a lack of cooperation when county prosecutors asked for probable cause statements in an unnamed case in which an officer shot and killed a civilian as well as an excessive-force investigation, which involved Brianna “BB” Hill’s arrest on May 24, 2019.
KCPD officers Matthew Brummett and Charles Prichard were charged Friday in Jackson County court with misdemeanor assault in connection with the incident involving Hill, who was shot and killed seven months later in an unrelated incident.
Members of KCPD stonewalled the prosecuting attorney’s office document requests earlier this year in the interest of “the department’s morale,” according to Peters Baker’s letter, and apparently intend to do so with all future investigations involving KCPD officers — a decision that narrows the options for Peters Baker to review such cases.
“I’ve been told that all future probable cause statements may be withheld in officer-involved incidents investigated by your department,” Peters Baker wrote in the letter to Smith. “By withholding a probable cause statement for an officer-involved incident, you are blocking the prosecutor’s independent review of the facts under the law.”
Smith said KCPD investigators "determined that there was no probable cause to conclude the officers broke the law" in a statement Friday about charges against Brummett and Prichard.
"That is why our department did not submit a 'probable cause' affidavit to the prosecutor," Smith said in a emailed statement sent to local media outlets.
Unable to file charges without an independent review of the probable cause statement, Peters Baker said her office is forced to rely on more clandestine grand-jury proceedings — the details of which are not a matter of public record, unless charges are filed.
Peters Baker noted that police officers “hold a special place” in the community and “put their lives at risk” for the citizens of Kansas City, but she said officers “are not entitled to a special process when they are the subject of a criminal investigation.”
She said “strong protections” exist under state law to protect officers from criminal prosecution in the conduct of law enforcement work, but stressed: “Investigations must be neutral. Our system depends on this. Neutrality is especially important when you are investigating someone who works within your own ranks.”
Peters Baker said she wants Kansas Citians “to support KCPD and all law enforcement in Jackson County,” but added that both “the community must believe that civilian-victims and officer-suspects receive fair treatment.”
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 99 President Brad Lemon fired back Friday in a statement that takes exception to “the unjustified misdemeanor charges” filed against Brummett and Prichard, who he called “exemplary officers.”
Lemon accused Peters Baker of “a politically motivated prosecution” and said the Fraternal Order of Police is “astonished that while crime continues to plague our city,” the prosecutor's office “would rather secretly conduct grand jury proceedings to charge officers for doing their jobs.”
“Instead of focusing her efforts on helping officers combat crime that continues to destroy Kansas City families, she seeks to score cheap political points,” Lemon said.
Hill's family disagreed with that characterization and accused Chief Smith of circling the wagons around his own personnel rather than seeking justice.
"He's protecting these two officers who on video destroyed this woman's face, pounded it into the ground," Hill family attorney David Smith said. "And not only do they get a pass, they get protected."
Peters Baker said she was left with no choice because of the department’s refusal to cooperate with her document request.
According to Peters Baker’s letter, she asked for in-person meetings Feb. 13 and 17, 2020, after being stonewalled days earlier when her office requested a probable cause statement related to a 2019 homicide investigation.
“I accepted these meetings in the hope that it would lead to my office receiving the requested document,” she wrote. “Instead, I was told that my actions would greatly harm the department’s morale."
The prosecutor’s office also requested the probable cause statement for Hill’s arrest and the department’s subsequent investigation of it in March 2020, only to have that request denied also.
“In my twenty-two years of service to this County, I cannot recall a time when a request for a probable cause statement was denied on a civilian who was the subject of an investigation,” Peters Baker wrote.
Hill's family attorney, David Smith, called for Chief Smith to resign Friday and also believes the way KCPD investigates its own is problematic.
"How about this Chief, how bout you let another department investigate your officers?" David Smith in an interview with 41 Action News. "You have to be the last department in America that investigates their own officers when they are involved in police-involved incidents."
Peters Baker alleges that KCPD didn’t investigate the alleged excessive-force incident involving Hill until she requested it after cell-phone video of Hill’s arrest for trespassing, disorderly conduct and possession of drug paraphernalia was aired by local media.
Peters Baker also took exception to the handling of the investigation into a KCPD officer’s deadly shooting. She listed several concerns, the most stinging of which were that:
- The lead investigator of the investigation previously supervised and currently worked closely with the officer involved, a fact not initially disclosed to prosecutors.
- Only 19 of 500 pages and one of “multiple” discs in the investigation’s case file deals with the KCPD officer and detectives, upon interviewing the officer “days after the shooting,” failed to ask questions submitted by the prosecutor’s office.
Based on Peters Baker’s final sentence in her letter to Smith, the impasse between KCPD and the prosecutor’s office doesn't appear to be headed to a quick resolution. “Finally, I appreciate, as we discussed and agreed to on our call, that while you and I strongly disagree on this issue, we both remain focused on working together to keep our community safe. But understand that I cannot uphold the duties of my position by remaining silent on this matter.”
Read Peters Baker's full letter to Smith:
Read Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 99 President Brad Lemon's full statement: