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Federal appeals court reinstates civil rights cases against KCPD officers

Posted at 7:18 PM, Oct 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-28 20:18:40-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A federal appellate court ruled Wednesday that a civil rights lawsuit against two Kansas City, Missouri, police officers and the department can proceed.

Tyree Bell and his family sued KCPD after he was arrested and detained for three weeks in a juvenile jail during a June 8, 2016, incident involving a suspected teenager with a gun near East 91st Street and Marsh Avenue.

Two KCPD officers responding to the call, Peter Neukirch and Jonathan Munyan, attempted to stop three teenagers near the scene when one took off running.

Neukirch and Munyan are named as the primary defendants in the lawsuit.

Seven minutes later and roughly a mile away, another KCPD officer stopped Bell along East 87th Street since he matched the general description of the suspect.

Despite the fact that Bell didn’t attempt to flee from the second alleged contact and was not out of breath, he was arrested based on Munyan’s identification — an ID the court found to be egregiously flawed.

No other witnesses — including the two teenagers who didn’t run from the initial encounter and the 911 caller — were asked to identify Bell, but the officers reviewed dashcam footage before securing a 24-hour investigative hold from a superior.

A juvenile court judge ruled June 10 there was probable cause to detain Bell until his trial in August and he remained locked up after a second hearing June 22.

Bell wasn’t released until June 29 after a KCPD detective reviewing the patrol car video for the first time confirmed that he wasn’t wearing the same shorts or socks as the suspect on the video that charges were dropped.

Bell’s attorney contends he was arrested for being a Black teenager and nothing more.

“Black lives matter,” Arthur Benson said in a statement to 41 Action News. “Three weeks of an innocent child's life stolen and jailed matter. When the Kansas City Police Department does not train its mostly white officers that all Blacks do not look alike it matters. When the Department does not train its officers that cross-race identifications are often mis-identifications resulting in innocent people of color being wrongfully arrested, it matters. Maybe what Mr. Bell suffered can result in long-needed police officer training and then innocence can matter.”

KCPD had no comment.

"We generally do not comment on pending litigation, which this matter is, to ensure fairness for all sides in the matter," a police spokesman said via email to 41 Action News.

Bell’s family sued KCPD and the arresting officer in 2017, but U.S. District Court Judge Greg Kays dismissed the lawsuit in 2019 after ruling that Neukirch and Munyan had qualified immunity based on the supposition they “could reasonably believe probable cause existed to arrest” him.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned that ruling Wednesday and remanded the case back to district court.

“We conclude that the totality of circumstances was insufficient to warrant a prudent officer in believing that Bell was the suspect who possessed the gun and fled the original scene,” Chief Judge Lavenski Smith wrote in the majority opinion.

Bell was five inches taller, didn’t appear to have recently fled from officers based on his physical condition, was wearing different clothes and different shoes, and wore a different style and color of hair than the suspect in the police dashcam video.

“Given the glaring differences, there was not arguable probable cause to believe that Bell was the fleeing suspect,” Smith wrote. “Bell’s right to be free from an arrest and detention under the circumstances was clearly established. It is an obvious case of insufficient probable cause.”

Smith goes on to say the officers overlooked “plainly exculpatory evidence” and that merely “scanning a video does not make (an officer’s) conduct objectively reasonable.”

“An officer who repeatedly watched the video and failed to take note of the substantial discrepancies between Bell and the suspect demonstrates less diligence that what is expected of competent police officers about to limit someone’s liberty by arrest,” Smith wrote.

On those grounds, Bell’s lawsuit against Neukirch, Munyan and the department, which asserts that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated and the department's training is insufficient, may proceed.

Both officers remain employees with KCPD. Munyan works in the Patrol Bureau's Special Operations Division and Neukirch works in the Investigations Bureau's Violent Crimes Division.