Former Jackson County Deputy Who Shot Woman Could Get Lighter Sentence than Most
A former Jackson County sheriff’s deputy who shot a woman in the back and made false statements about the circumstances may spend just 120 days behind bars, according to a plea agreement announced earlier this week.
It would be a lighter sentence than most receive for that crime and, some say, evidence that law enforcement officers get more lenient treatment when they face charges.
Lauren N. Michael, 30, pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree assault, with one count of armed criminal action dismissed. The charges stemmed from an August 2019 incident in which Michael shot a woman who had been riding a scooter going the wrong direction on a Kansas City street. TOP ARTICLESDo masks help slow spread of COVID-19 in Kansas? One study says ‘Yes,’ by as much as 50%
Jackson County prosecutors charged Michael two months later, after questions were raised about an earlier shooting in which Michael killed a man suspected of shoplifting. In both cases, Michael claimed the suspects had taken her stun gun and shocked her.
After Michael was charged, prosecutors pledged to re-examine the previous, fatal shooting. On Tuesday, they said they would not charge Michael in that shooting.
In Michael’s assault case, the plea agreement calls for a minimum of 120 days shock time in custody with three years probation and a six year suspended prison sentence. Prosecutors can seek up to six years in prison. A judge will make the final decision.
But under Missouri’s sentencing laws, Michael could face five to 15 years.
Though circumstances vary — including the nature of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history — those who were sent to prison for the same crime were sentenced on average to 12 years, according to a 2019 report from the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The lesser sentence under consideration is evidence, police accountability advocates say, of a system that gives law enforcement officers special treatment.
“Everyone should be held to the same standard,” said Johnny Waller Jr., the Missouri and Kansas organizer for MORE2, a social justice organization based in Kansas City. “Where I primarily work, on the east side of Kansas City, if you shoot somebody in the back, you’re going to prison. And the expectation is: you shot someone in the back, you should go to prison for a very long time.”
The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office said prosecutors will have more to say during the March sentencing hearing.
“At the sentencing hearing, you can hear what we will recommend,” said Mike Mansur, the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. “Under the terms yesterday, we can advocate for up to 6 years in prison.”
Michael continued to be employed by the sheriff’s office up until Tuesday, when she was terminated. She still has a valid Missouri peace officer’s license.
On Aug. 8. 2019, Michael began chasing Brittany Simek, who had been riding on a Bird scooter that was traveling in the wrong direction near 37th and Main Street. Simek was located sitting on concrete steps in the 4000 block of Oak Street and a struggle ensued.
At the time, the deputy said Simek took her Taser away from her and shocked her with it. But investigators later cast doubt on that story. The Taser cartridges had been deployed within three seconds, which did not leave enough time for the physical altercation Michael had described, prosecutors said.
As Simek attempted to run, Michael fired four shots. One of the bullets hit Simek’s cellphone. Another broke her sacrum, a bony structure connected to the pelvis, and had to be surgically removed. Simek also had four Taser probes lodged in her.
It wasn’t the first time Michael had opened fire on someone.
In May 2017, she was working off-duty security at a Raytown Walmart when she shot and killed Donald Sneed III, who was suspected of shoplifting. In this case too, Michael claimed the suspect took her stun gun and shocked her with it.
Lauren Bonds, the legal director for the National Police Accountability Project, said any consequences from the first shooting weren’t sufficient to deter future excessive force.
“I think this is a classic example of how cops that engage in harmful and abusive conduct towards civilians can just get a pass and keep doing what they’re doing,” Bonds said.
At the time, prosecutors declined to file charges. In August 2019, following the Simek shooting, officials said they would reopen the case.
However on Tuesday, Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Mike Mansur, said charges will not be filed.
Bonds said a 120-day jail sentence for shooting Simek would be concerning.
“I think it’s very disparate,” Bonds said.
Accountability, she said, serves as a deterrent, provides justice for victims and engenders community trust.
Throughout the legal proceedings, Michael remained listed as a county employee though she was placed on unpaid administrative leave in October 2019.
Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté said he was made aware of the plea agreement on Monday.
“Former Deputy Michael’s employment terminated at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office effective yesterday,” he said Wednesday.
Michael continues to hold a valid license to work as a law enforcement officer in Missouri, said Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
Licensing is administered by the Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training Program (POST). An officer can lose their license if they are under indictment, charged or convicted of any felony. O’Connell said POST was aware of the matter involving Michael.
A message left with Michael’s defense attorney this week was not returned.
Lawsuits against Michael have been filed in both shootings.
Michael Yonke is representing Simek. In the criminal case, Yonke said, his client understood the challenges that come with prosecuting a law enforcement officer and that she was satisfied with a plea agreement that will make Michael a convicted felon and serve at least some jail time.
Trials in the civil cases are scheduled for September in the Sneed lawsuit and October in Simek’s.
Waller, the community organizer, knows what it’s like when the legal system doles out harsh punishments.
He was 18 when he was convicted on marijuana charges and sentenced to five years in prison in 2000. He served three before being released on parole. It was his first offense.
“I went to prison for far less than shooting someone in the back,” he said, adding that some form of marijuana is now legal in most states. “There is no real police accountability in Kansas City.”
Community advocates and other stakeholders have long held that there are two systems at play — one where police officers get special treatment and another for everyone else.
People who are arrested in Jackson County have their mugshot taken and it becomes available online. Their home addresses are entered into public court records. But that’s not the case in most prosecutions involving police, including Michael and four Kansas City police officers who were charged last year.
“I think the bottom line is that what the public really wants in a law enforcement investigation of a law enforcement officer is for them to be treated just like every other defendant,” said John Picerno, a Kansas City defense attorney. “We know they’re not — they get certain breaks.”
In a 2019 case involving former KCPD officer Terrell Watkins, prosecutors listed his address as a defunct police station.
Watkins pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for a crash that killed a teenager and injured two others. He was ordered to serve 120 days in jail with a suspended 17-year sentence.
Waller said prosecutors and the judge have a responsibility to the community. In Michael’s case, he said, the prospect of a 120-day jail sentence was “disturbing.”
Both Picerno and Waller said officials could take steps to even the playing field. Police often are protected by union contracts. Instead of being treated like a suspect following a shooting, some departments including Kansas City, allow a 48-hour waiting period before officers are questioned.
The creation of independent review boards is also a key change that could help build community trust.
1 of 3 Jackson County Deputy Lauren Michael was presented a medal of valor in 2018 by then-Sheriff Mike Sharp for her role during an altercation with shoplifting suspect.
816-234-4312 Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.
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