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‘I can’t breathe’: Felony assault charge against police officer reveals crisis in KCPD

By The Kansas City Star Editorial Board Updated August 21, 2020 06:52 PM

At City Council on Aug. 20, three people stood up and called for Mayor Quinton Lucas to hold Kansas City police accountable and criticized the Board of Police Commissioners.

As an unarmed Black teenager lay on the ground in the parking lot of a Go Chicken Go restaurant last November, he told a Kansas City police officer, “I can’t breathe.”

The officer’s knee was on his head, according to an eyewitness statement given to the police department’s Internal Affairs Unit, and the 15-year-old would later say he felt like he was choking when he repeated those chilling words, now familiar to all Americans.

The young suspect and a friend had led police on a brief high-speed car chase. Officers thought the pair might have been involved in an armed robbery, but that turned out to be wrong.TOP ARTICLESTemps to stay in the 90s this week in Kansas City ahead of cooler weekend weather

The police pursuit ended in the parking lot of the fried chicken restaurant at 51st Street and Troost Avenue. Officers ordered the two suspects from their car, then told the 15-year-old passenger to crawl to them across the pavement, as a safety measure, according to later statements.

After the teenager complied, Sgt. Matthew Neal — an 18-year veteran of the department — allegedly slammed the young suspect’s face into the concrete, breaking two of his teeth and gashing his face. Neal placed his knee on the boy’s head, according to a statement from another officer in the parking lot that night.

The teenager feared he would choke to death. “I was telling them that I can’t breathe, and y’all are choking me,” he told Internal Affairs.

He did not resist arrest, he said. “Every time they was asking me something, I would say no sir, yes sir,” he told investigators. “That is why I do not understand why they slammed my head like that and started choking me.”

The young man, now 16, was not charged with a crime. He was taken to the hospital, and his head was stitched.

On Friday, a Jackson County grand jury handed up an indictment charging Neal with 3rd-degree assault, a felony, in connection with his actions that night. The charging documents say Neal was issued a subpoena, but declined to testify.

“Our victim was a 15-year-old passenger who was cooperative with police,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in an emailed statement. “He ended up in Children’s Mercy Hospital with a gash on his head and broken front teeth.

“I hope all involved in this case and our community will rally around this victim and support him,” she said.

In a statement, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith said the department is committed to the legal process. “All of us want justice,” Smith said.

Neal, like all criminal suspects, is entitled to the presumption of innocence as the prosecution goes forward. But the case proves once again that the Kansas City Police Department’s internal oversight and discipline procedures are woefully inadequate and in need of an immediate overhaul.

KCPD needs independent oversight

The suspect’s mother filed a citizen’s complaint after the incident. Following an investigation, the police department’s Office of Community Complaints sustained the excessive force accusation against Sgt. Neal.

Neal remains on the police force, the prosecutor said Friday. In his statement, Chief Smith said Neal was placed on administrative leave after the Office of Community Complaints investigation.

The nature of any other discipline for Neal, if there was any, has not been made public.

On Friday, Baker said her office did not learn of the incident until spring, at least three months after it happened.

“I simply can’t be blindsided by a lack of information,” the prosecutor said at a news conference. “There’s a need for a better reporting structure.”

Only independent oversight can protect the public from the misbehavior of some officers. But repeated calls for a completely independent, civilian review procedure for police excessive force complaints have long been ignored in Kansas City.

“The review process is broken,” said Tom Porto, a lawyer who has worked with the family of the young arrest victim. “A review process independent of the police department would immediately equate to more confidence from the public.”

The department’s leadership cannot claim it was unaware of this incident. After the complaint was sustained, Neal should have been fired immediately.

A second officer escapes discipline

The Office of Community Complaints initially sustained a misconduct accusation against a second officer, Dylan Pifer, who was directly involved in the arrest that night.

After pressure from Chief Smith’s office, that finding was reversed. The office argued, incredibly, that Pifer may not have seen Neal’s use of excessive force, and should therefore be let off the hook.

Yet Pifer stood next to the suspect and helped put him in handcuffs, the officer told Internal Affairs. “I was on the left side (of the suspect) and Sgt. Neal had the right side, and I believe I went into high-risk handcuffing,” Pifer said.

Office of Community Complaints Executive Director Merrell Bennekin nevertheless accepted the explanation offered by the police chief’s office and withdrew the finding. “We find the rationale and explanations provided in support of a change … to be compelling,” he wrote to the chief’s office.

“There will be no record of this incident whatsoever included in your personnel file,” the chief’s office then wrote Pifer.

Pifer’s role here deserves intense scrutiny. In May of 2019, he shot and killed 30-year old Terrance Bridges, an unarmed African American, after a chase. Pifer was not publicly disciplined in the Bridges case.

Why didn’t other officers intervene that night?

The findings of the Office of Community Complaints, and the criminal case against Neal, rest in part on the testimony of Officer Kevin Summers, who was also on the scene that evening.

“Sgt. Neal placed his knee on (the suspect’s) head holding his head to the ground,” Summers told Internal Affairs in a signed statement.

Was the teenager’s head slammed into the ground, investigators asked, or pinned to the ground? “Both,” Summers said.

There were several dash-cam videos available to investigators, documents show. None included the arrest of the suspect.

It took enormous courage for Summers to describe what he saw that night, and his testimony now is critical. The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners must make it absolutely clear that any retaliation against Summers would be unacceptable and cause for dismissal.

At the same time, it isn’t clear why any of the officers in that parking lot, including Summers, failed to intervene when they saw what Neal was doing to the young man on the ground.

The lack of police intervention in George Floyd’s murder led to criminal charges against silent officers, and anger across the country. This outrageous incident in Kansas City raises similar questions about police officers’ unwillingness to do the right thing in real time.

Supporters of the police department often say rank-and-file members are honorable men and women. They’re right. But the good cops know who the bad cops are. The good cops must not enable rogue officers by staying silent.

They must step up to stop violence when they see it.

The Star Editorial Board has argued relentlessly for local control of the Kansas City Police Department. We have urged civilian review of charges of police brutality. And amid unwavering resistance to needed changes within the department, we have called for Chief Smith’s resignation.
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