Black activists Alonzo Washington and Ron Hunt called for Mayor Kay Barnes to do something about hate crimes in Kansas City, Missouri. So in April, she announced the creation of her Task Force on Bias Incidents/Hate Crimes to an audience of nearly seventy people and plenty of press coverage.
Barnes appointed eighteen people, including City Council members Theresa Loar and Alvin Brooks, a U.S. Department of Justice official, civil rights leaders, police officials and community activists. The high-profile task force met for seven months and staged three public sessions for people to voice their concerns about race relations.
When the task force released its report on December 6, though, it provided little information about hate crimes.
The work of the task force was "asinine and weak," Washington tells the Pitch.
"We wanted a task force that would be about investigating the crimes themselves," he explains. "That never happened. None of the hate crimes have been resolved. If you do something like this, the only thing that's going to happen is a bunch of people are going to get together and pray, write a report, and you can go scot-free."
Mayoral aide Donovan Mouton disagrees. "The task force did its best to investigate the two incidents, which spurred his involvement and the mayor's attention," he says. "Every attempt was made to investigate those incidents." According to police, both investigations are still open.
Washington and Hunt didn't serve on Barnes' task force. They say the mayor never asked them and that they abandoned hope for a meaningful process as soon as Barnes named its members. "I never wanted a task force of civic leaders in the first place," Washington says. "As an activist, I can't arrest anybody."
Fewer than 100 people showed up for the three community meetings, and fewer than twenty actually testified. "We could not get those folks to talk," says Major John Hamilton of the police department, a task force member. Among the citizens who refused to testify were the two Liberian women.
So the eighteen-member group turned its focus to racial profiling. Transcripts of the public meetings paint a picture of long venting sessions. For example, at one meeting Sherley Carson talked about how her house had been egged and police had stopped her car simply because she was black. "I've been in Kansas City sixty years, and I absolutely hate Kansas City," she said. "This is the most unfriendly place with the most unfriendly people I've ever seen in my life, and that's no matter what you do."
At one point, task-force members seemed a little too sympathetic.
Robert Graham, a federal investigator who is black, said police had stopped him for no reason in his Northland neighborhood. He also said employees at the Jones Store had ignored him -- waiting instead on white customers -- while he was trying to buy perfume for his wife. Councilwoman Loar, who is white, said she knew the feeling. "A lot of these same things have happened to me," she said. "I mean, I've been stopped, I've been ticketed. I've been ticketed when I'm on the City Council. I told the cop, you know, 'I vote for your raises,' but that didn't seem to help. But anyway, the Jones Store incident -- I understand, Mr. Graham, where you're coming from. They've done that to me a number of times."
Graham doubted it. "Unless the [councilwoman] has ever been in a store where everybody who got waited on before she did was African-American, then and only then could she have experienced what I experienced," Graham said. "I think I made it understood I didn't get a ticket. I was pulled over specifically because the officers asked me what I was doing in that area. I lived in the area." Loar apologized.
This exchange was noted as a "classic example of majority denial" in an early version of the task force's report.
In September, the group paid writer Kevin Morris $900 (half from the city, half from the Urban League) to sift through all the meeting minutes and forum transcripts to prepare a draft report. Because of the lack of public testimony, the task force told Morris to conduct his own research as well.
Morris turned to a 1998 report about police brutality in U.S. cities written by the nonprofit Human Rights Watch (Kansas City was not one of the cities included in the study) as well as a 2001 report on traffic stops in Missouri issued by Attorney General Jay Nixon. Morris' September report called for more stringent controls over the police. He argued that civilians should be involved in disciplinary hearings and that police departments should more aggressively deal with "rogue" cops or officers with a history of complaints against them. Morris' report also called for civil lawsuits against the police to be paid for by the police rather than by the city's general fund, as an incentive to weed out problem officers.
Task-force members found the report "incendiary," Morris tells the Pitch. "When I presented what I wrote, there was considerable consternation from members of the police department."
Hamilton agrees. He adds that, because Morris did his own research, "[the report] assumed a conclusion we weren't able to draw. There's no evidence we ever uncovered that there was egregious conduct."
Hamilton urged that the report be "completely overhauled." It was.
The final report runs only 12 pages to the original's 36, and its recommendations focus primarily on conducting more surveys and making it easier for citizens to file complaints against the police.
Instead the report acknowledges that racial profiling exists in Kansas City.
By the time the September report was issued, many task-force members had stopped coming to the meetings, says Carolyn Vellar, task-force cochair and executive director of Northland Neighborhoods Inc. "I don't know that what the task force set out to do was what we accomplished," she says.
Barnes has selected task-force chair and president of the Urban League Gwen Grant to serve on a new fifteen-member task force, called the Mayor's Commission on Race, to develop strategies to combat racial profiling.
Washington and Hunt, meanwhile, have said they oppose the city's spending any money on developing more reports.
The two hoped a town hall meeting on December 16 might gather more residents who had not attended the city's task force. But only ten people showed up for a meeting that had been mentioned on the front page of The Kansas City Star's metro section. Washington and Hunt, however, were not among them -- the activists say they cancelled the meeting but failed to notify anyone.