WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has begun investigating possible patterns of racial discrimination in the hiring and promotion of Black police officers in Kansas City, Missouri, according to city officials.
The inquiry will focus on allegations that the Kansas City Police Department’s leaders created “a hostile work environment” that contributed to race-based disparities in the 1,100-member force, including assignments and disciplinary actions, according to a letter sent to the department’s governing board on Monday.
The investigation was prompted, in part, by a series of articles in the Kansas City Star, documenting the complaints by 25 Black current and former officers. White supervisors, they said, subjected subordinates to racist abuse and forced out Black officers for minor infractions or unsubstantiated charges.
Perhaps as a result, fewer Black officers are now serving in the ranks than at almost any time in decades, contributing to the overall shrinking of the force as violent crime has hit Missouri’s two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, particularly hard.
The Police Department’s leaders vowed to cooperate with federal investigators and to enforce any changes required to address a pattern critics say stretched back years.
It is the department’s policy “to provide a work atmosphere free of actual or perceived discrimination and harassment,” Joseph Mabin, the interim police chief, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Kristen M. Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, had no comment.
Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat who has long been critical of the Police Department’s practices, told reporters on Monday that the problems have been known for years. The department’s Board of Police Commissioners, on which he now sits, should have conducted its own inquiry years ago, he said.
“I think it is time — frankly, past time — that we look internally at the department to see what can we do better,” he said.
This month, the city auditor, Douglas Jones, announced he would examine hiring practices at the department, whose force has dropped 20 percent over the past decade, despite a sharp rise in violent crime over the past several years.
Under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the department has expanded its scrutiny of police departments over discriminatory practices against racial minorities and women.
The fact that city leaders are embracing the investigation is significant. While federal inquiries can result in lawsuits, they are most frequently used as a starting point for settlement agreements, which typically include significant overhauls to policing or hiring practices and a mechanism for monitoring a department’s compliance.
Under Ms. Clarke, the department has initiated a handful of high-profile pattern-or-practice investigations, which are meant to determine whether a state or local law enforcement agency uses “excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices.”
Ms. Clarke is overseeing investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department in connection with the killing of George Floyd, the Louisville Police Department’s actions leading up to the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and other investigations of police conduct in Louisiana, Phoenix and Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
The inquiry in Kansas City, while part of the administration’s effort to address racial disparities in all facets of government, is based on a distinct provision in federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination.
Source: The New York Times