KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas says the city and police are changing the way they are handling protesters near the County Club Plaza.
Lucas said that “de-escalation needs to be our guide” Tuesday in a Facebook post and said the city will be taking a different path than that of St. Louis, New York and other cities.
“I feel like we’re digging the same hole night after night,” KCPD Chief of Police Rick Smith said at a 5 p.m. news conference near the Plaza, which has been the site of protests for five consecutive days. “We really want things to change. We’re really hoping tomorrow night with our Unity March we can set a different tone in this city.”
Smith said a pastor from a church in east Kansas City — Bishop Tony Caldwell, the founder of Community Unity KC — asked if he’d be willing to organize a march with protesters.
The Unity March is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, 4525 Oak Street, and will go to Mill Creek Park at East 47th and Main streets, where the J.C. Nichols Fountain is located.
Change happens in face-to-face discussions. Join us tomorrow. pic.twitter.com/SbSgU81AgG— kcpolice (@kcpolice) June 2, 2020
Meanwhile, Smith said KCPD will continue to “modify its tactics,” which he says they have done during the previous four nights of protests, as another gathering is underway Tuesday night.
“It’s a very fine line between protecting this city, and the assets of this city, and maintaining control when there’s an environment such as this,” Smith said. “It’s a difficult balancing act, and there’s many different perceptions of it — whether we’re doing it well or whether we’re not doing it well.”
Smith said he’s heard the criticism of some KCPD tactics and has engaged the mayor’s office and community leaders in discussions about how to manage the ongoing protests, which have arisen to denounce police brutality toward the black community in the wake of George Floyd’s death last week at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Video of a man who is one step off the curb yelling at officers, who then pull him from the crowd and pepper spray nearby protesters, has drawn condemnation on social media.
But KCPD Deputy Chief Karl Oakman, a colonel in charge of the department’s Patrol Bureau, said, “what you’re probably seeing is the end result of the person repeatedly violating the orders throughout the day.”
Smith said he’s reviewed the video and saw fellow protesters trying to pull the man being arrested back into the crowd and bottles being thrown at officers.
“We’re doing the best we can to manage this,” Smith said. “I think people want to be heard. We are trying to give everyone that opportunity every night.”
He also defended KCPD’s use of force to try and keep protesters confined to Mill Creek Park.
“I told everyone, ‘You can have the park all night long,’” Smith said. “We didn’t set foot in the park last night.”
As long as protests remain peaceful, Smith said KCPD will not break up the gathering in Mill Creek Park.
But he said when protesters defy police commands and enter the street, it ratchets up the tension.
“Sometimes, we’ve had several thousand people lined up in the park,” Smith said. “When we say that curb is the line, we can’t then say it’s here and then it’s here and then it’s here. We’ll be backed up against the building. We have to set an expectation. We have to do it for the safety of everyone involved.”
Oakman said an exception is made for those KCPD has identified as protest leaders, who are allowed to step into the street to address the crowd without repercussion.
Ultimately, though, Smith said the officers on the line have to have the discretion to remove perceived agitators from the crowd and he won’t second guess those decisions.
“If we intervene early, are we preventing something or are we provoking it? That’s sometimes a judgment call," Smith said.
Smith added, “We ain’t perfect. I know that 100%, but I’m telling you our hearts are in the right place. We want the same things as everybody else. We want their voices heard and we want peace in Kansas City.”
To that end, Lucas said he will not enact a curfew for the second consecutive night. He also said no police officers will form a line between protesters and the Plaza moving forward, unless a response is needed.
“We support the right of peaceful protest and recognize how adjustments can help people share their message,” Lucas said in the post.
Asked about reports of KCPD officers dumping milk many protesters use to wash out their eyes after tear gas is deployed, Smith said he hadn’t witnessed it personally, but “from the officers’ perspective, that’s what’s getting hurled at them. We’re getting milk jugs and bottles and everything else.”
Smith said he welcomes anyone who believes their rights were violated by officers to contact the Office of Community Complaints, a civilian oversight board, for independent review.
“If you feel like you’ve been unjustly injured or something has happened, please reach out,” Smith said.
Nonetheless, he defended the decision made by KCPD’s on-site tactical commanders when it comes to declaring an assembly unlawful, which has happened several nights in a row and resulted in tear gas and “non-lethal” rounds — bean bag rounds baton rounds, or hard plastic projectiles sometimes referred to as rubber bullets — being used against protesters.
“When we’ve gotten to the point of announcing an unlawful assembly, it’s because they’ve been throwing cans, rocks bottles — we give them warnings before," Smith said.
But Smith said, at that point the decision has been made that “people are going to get hurt and officers are going to get hurt,” so KCPD will begin to try and clear the streets.
Smith said he isn’t deaf to the demands many protesters have for accountability within the KCPD ranks, but added that “many of the things they’re asking for we already have. We already have independent reviews. We already have an independent office that handles complaints.”
He expects the issue of body cameras, for which the city and KCPD have struggled to find funding, to be discussed at length during the next Board of Police Commissioners meeting.
Lucas said he plans to call an emergency special meeting with the Board of Police Commissioners Thursday to talk about the use of force during protests and other protest policies.
“Deescalation is the path we need to follow to create community trust,” Lucas said.
I’ll first note that I have called for an emergency meeting of the governing board of police commissioners for this Thursday morning. I serve as one of five commissioners and thought it essential we discuss pressing issues earlier than mid-June.— Mayor Q (@QuintonLucasKC) June 3, 2020
The conversation will also expand to look at police relationships with the community, particularly the black community, in Kansas City, the mayor said.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is set for June 16 at the KCPD Headquarters Community Room, 1125 Locust St.
Smith said he already has had preliminary discussions about body cams with several board members.