• Federal
  • State
  • Municipal

KC court had 867 strangulation cases — and zero officers to confiscate abusers’ guns

By Melinda Henneberger February 11, 2020 05:00 AM

Sorry, or Not: How Men Accused of Sexual Misconduct React

When you think of municipal court, maybe you think of unpaid parking tickets or various lawn-related violations.

But think again, because Kansas City’s Domestic Violence Court handled 867 strangulation cases last year. And these weren’t felonies, or even misdemeanors, but city ordinance violations, right up there with jaywalking.

But in Kansas City, for reasons that seem unclear to all of the relevant parties, Domestic Violence Court Judge Courtney Wachal deals all day every day with the city ordinance violation of whipping your partner with a power cord, the city ordinance violation of shooting at your partner but missing, the city ordinance violation of stalking and the city ordinance violation of violating a protective order.

Do I really need to say that these are not minor matters? Apparently, yes.

“It’s been that way for years,” Annie Struby, longtime advocate at the Rose Brooks Center, says of the gravity of the cases being handled by the city court. In fact, when it comes to intimate partner violence, “Nine of 10 cases go to muni.”

“I don’t understand why these cases are filed here,” says Judge Wachal. “Not only because of their severity, but the people who come in over and over and over” with cases involving strangulation and also guns, another flashing danger sign. “This is a high lethality docket.”

Sit in her court for a couple of days, as I did, and walk away in awe at what she does with the resources available, but also in alarm at both the seriousness and the tsunami of cases that wash up on her shore.

And since one thing mass murderers tend to have in common is a history of domestic violence, our Class C response to these crimes is not just outdated but deadly.

One veteran of the municipal domestic violence court recently killed herself, and another was murdered, though not by her abuser. As many as one in every five homicides in Kansas City is the result of domestic violence, says Mayor Quinton Lucas. (Though our statistics don’t accurately reflect that because they’re just terrible.)

Another veteran of municipal domestic violence court was Gene Birdsong, who goes on trial for murder next month. His wife, Tabitha Birdsong, who died with the last of her many protective orders in her pocket, was found dead on a jogging path by a woman out on an early morning walk in Roanoke Park in November of 2018.

In the nine years they were together, Gene Birdsong had been arrested dozens of times, in at least four different states, on allegations of assaulting his wife, so the city court was far from the only one that failed to stop him.

But that morning she was found with her face cut off, he still had an outstanding warrant in municipal domestic violence court. And though no one can claim she’d still be alive if only someone had served that warrant, it’s a problem that those warrants are never served. “I issue a warrant, and it just sits there,” says Wachal.

Let’s say that again: If a warrant is issued for your arrest in municipal domestic violence court in Kansas City, absolutely no one is coming for you. Only if you happen to be pulled over for something else and police run a check will you actually be arrested.

Even when trials are held and defendants found guilty of these not-so-minor matters, the maximum sentence Wachal can give is six months — really four, because of jail overcrowding. And if instead, as in the vast majority of cases, you are given two years of probation, often on the condition that you surrender your firearm, there is no one coming for that gun, either.

Lucas, who has only been in office for six months, quickly pushed through an ordinance on taking guns away from convicted abusers. But just recently, he learned that even with the new ordinance on the books, there is no one who actually goes to get these guns.

“We started seeing the enforcement scheme is nonexistent,” Lucas said.

Judge Wachal says Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith told her his officers just can’t do that job. A Kansas City Police Department spokesman said that’s because “we are not an enforcement arm of the court. A probation violation has to be monitored by someone attached to the court.”

Only, the court hasn’t had even one such a person, so what some call “paper probation” is really more like pretend probation.

In next year’s budget, which Lucas will present this week, he is going to propose funding for two probation officers who would for the first time actually go out and confiscate the guns that these violators have already been required by city law to surrender.

The details are still being worked out, but this would cost less than $150,000 a year, and as Lucas says, “could save so many lives.”

Kevin O’Neill, the Kansas City councilman who’s working on the proposal, says Chief Smith told him, “Good luck on hiring somebody for the job.”

Yes, it will be dangerous duty. But why are so many strangulation and other serious cases referred to the city in the first place? “We shouldn’t have these cases,” says Judge Wachal. “The county should be sending them to prison. But if they are going to be here, give us the resources.”

Turn pretend probation into something real.

As to why just under 900 strangulation cases are essentially in traffic court, Mike Mansur, a spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said, “There’s a big difference between listing it as strangulation because someone said that” versus being able to prove it in court.

That’s always true, but doesn’t answer the larger question of why so many cases that look, talk and walk like felonies really aren’t.

“I believe the police have been conditioned about what goes where,” Mansur said.

Domestic Violence Court Prosecutor Abby Pannell said that “sometimes we go back to KCPD and say, ‘Have you talked to Jackson County about this?’ They make the assumption that Jackson County doesn’t want it.”

A Kansas City Police Department spokesman, Sgt. Jacob Becchina, said that it’s not actually up to the police, but is up to prosecutors to decide whether to file charges. “We don’t make the decision. We present the case to the county, and if they decline, we write a Class C ticket” and send it to the city.

Domestic violence that ends in a homicide is never a first offense, though, Becchina said, so it’s true that “these lower-level crimes are many times the precursor of something serious. Everyone knows that.”

If everyone does know that, then why isn’t it reflected in the funding and the charging? And why isn’t it at the center of Kansas City’s efforts to cut the hellish number of homicides in this city?

“When we talk about solving our homicide problem, this is a huge area we’re missing,” said Lucas.

We do not have to keep doing that.

Chief Smith has said in the past that he believes that marijuana leads to murder. But strangulation leads to murder a lot more reliably.
Read more here: https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/melinda-henneberger/article240166283.html#storylink=cpy