KCMO Mayor, Police Chief Agree KCPD’s High Settlement Payouts Are ‘Something We Need to Address’
The KSHB 41 I-Team collected information from KCPD as well as other departments in similar-sized cities. Caitlin Knute breaks down what she found, what it means and how KC leaders are responding.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Steve Young co-founded KC LEAP, the Kansas City Enforcement Accountability Project, two years ago.
One of the goals of the organization is to ensure police-involved shootings and other physical interactions with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department are fully investigated. For Young and other volunteers, that sometimes means jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to race to a crime scene to digitally document how that scene is processed. That’s what happened Aug. 8, 2022.
Incident that Prompted Our Investigation
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A man was shot and killed outside a gas station near East 55th Street and Prospect Avenue by KCPD. The shooting was later ruled justified after surveillance video showed the man nearly hitting an officer with his vehicle. The night of the shooting, Young was watching the local news. When he saw what happened, he raced to the scene and started recording. That’s when he captured an encounter with a bystander named Mack Nelson. https://content.uplynk.com/player5/6ZI5Y8kcz38rKjHGm4syfZea.html Pay attention to the right side of the video, almost off-camera. It happens so fast, we’ve slowed the video down to give you a better look as Nelson’s body hits the ground.
Nelson was filming the crime scene of the police-involved shooting on “Facebook Live,” according to a police report. He was allegedly asked to move behind the crime scene tape but refused to comply. The report states he was “notified he was under arrest,” and as an officer, referred to as “PO Frazier,” began to handcuff him, Nelson resisted by “jerking his arms away and attempting to twist his body,” resulting in him “falling to the ground.” But Young claimed that’s not what he saw. “From the time he got over there, he got behind his back, he picked him up and just body slammed him. It was like there was no conversation or anything,” Young recalled. Not only did Nelson need medical treatment for multiple injuries, but he was later arrested.
He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing. John Picerno, Nelson’s attorney, said Nelson felt no one would believe him, so Nelson pleaded guilty as a way to simply get out of jail. However, once he was out, Nelson and Picerno learned Young caught the encounter on camera, a revelation that changed the trajectory of the case.
Picerno and Nelson then filed a lawsuit against KCPD. Earlier this summer, as we previously reported, both sides settled for $500,000. The settlement was a victory for Picerno, who said his win wouldn’t have been possible without Young’s cell phone footage.
Young told us he was just glad to have been able to help. He then urged us to look into other settlements recently reached with KCPD, claiming several high-dollar payouts have occurred in the last couple of years. So, we did some digging.
KSHB 41 I-Team’s Findings
We sent out a records request to KCPD for a list of all settlements reached in 2022 in addition to those thus far in 2023. In approximately a year and a half, KCPD paid out $10,094,824.94 for various settlements. Of that, $9,680,000, went to cases involving excessive force, wrongful death, assault and battery, and false arrest, with $2,117,500 exclusively going toward excessive force.
Comparing KC to Other Cities
To put the settlement figure into perspective, we searched for cities of comparable size, within 40,000 of the population size of KC, or cities Kansas City is often compared to, such as Nashville and St. Louis. We then sent records requests asking for settlements paid out by their police departments in 2022 and the first half of 2023. Out of all the cities we profiled, we discovered KCPD had paid the highest amount. When reviewing the information, it is important to note:
Tucson reports no excessive force.
Colorado Springs’ excessive breakdown was unclear.
KCMO reports $9,680,000 covers excessive force plus wrongful death and false arrest.
Mesa reports $5,271,929.44 covers excessive force plus police shootings and employee misconduct.
St. Louis reports $5,234,000 covers excessive force plus civil rights and civil rights class action.
These figures only represent a limited time period and are, therefore, subject to change. While Tucson’s numbers have been very low for the past 18 months, the city is facing a pending civil lawsuit for a wrongful death case involving a former police officer who shot and killed a shoplifting suspect in a mall parking lot. That officer, Ryan Remington, was originally charged in the incident. But those criminal charges have since been dismissed, according to our sister station, KGUN. Still, based on the contrasts we found in our small study sample, we took our findings to KCMO Mayor Quinton Lucas for a sit-down interview.
Kcmo Mayor Quinton Lucas and Kcpd Chief Stacey Graves React
First, we shared KCPD’s totals with the mayor.
“You know, the number doesn’t actually surprise me. I’ve been on the Board of Police Commissioners, and I’ve seen the settlements,” Lucas said. “And, even though it’s not a surprise, it does kind of stop you in your tracks.”
Next, we handed him a list of all the cities we profiled. “This is something I was not aware of before, our differences compared to other areas. And I’m not going to sugarcoat it, I think it’s a problem,” he admitted. Lucas acknowledged settlement money comes out of the police budget, which means it’s paid for with taxpayer dollars. “It’s something we need to address,” he said. “I know our current chief is working to make sure that training incorporates ways we can avoid these types of concerns.”
Admittedly, most of the incidents included in the report occurred before Stacey Graves assumed the role of chief. Nevertheless, she said she holds herself accountable for these figures.
“I think these are all unfortunate numbers, honestly. But, I would say, without having more detail on what their lawsuits are for, I don’t know if we’re comparing apples to apples,” Chief Graves shared. “So, I really want to just focus on Kansas City and what’s going on here. I want Kansas Citians to know that hurts us. I don’t ever want to see that number again. I can tell you that is the result of a couple high payouts.”
The “high payouts” include a $5,000,000 settlement with the family of Terrence Bridges, who was shot and killed by a KCPD officer in 2019. Although officers were called to an armed disturbance, it was later determined Bridges was not armed. However, the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office ultimately declined to file charges, noting the officer believed Bridges was armed based on information from witnesses.
While Graves didn’t discuss any specific cases, she explained sometimes agreeing to a settlement is the cheaper option for police and taxpayers, as opposed to paying additional legal fees to defend a case in court. “Some of these lawsuits, as you know, our officers are put in no-win situations where they have to react. And sometimes, that could’ve been done better,” she said. “And sometimes, I mean, that was a reasonable response to whatever was presented to them. But it still results in a monetary price tag to try to remedy that situation.” Graves said she hopes these figures are an anomaly and not the norm, adding the department is committed to learning from each and every case that made this list.
John Picerno — the attorney for Mack Nelson, who filed a lawsuit against KCPD alleging excessive force — said although he and his client benefited from their settlement, as a fellow Kansas City taxpayer, he wants to see the chief make good on her promise to get those numbers down. “It starts from the top and goes down. And they’ve got to change the way they deal with things,” Picerno said. “The millions our city has paid out for this police department? Somebody should step in.”
Everyone we met with while putting this story together agreed KCPD’s settlement number is problematic. Here at KSHB 41, we want to go beyond addressing the problem, we want to highlight possible solutions.
For example, Mayor Lucas mentioned that even though KCPD is controlled by a state board, as opposed to being under local control, the state only covers a limited amount in legal fees — something he’d like to see change. “I would like to see us have a conversation with the state of Missouri about covering more of these expenses. Currently, Missouri provides us $1 million a year to cover legal expenses,” Lucas said. “As you might imagine, every year we exceed that amount. That amount that’s exceeded comes out of the pocketbooks of taxpayers here in Kansas City. I think, even more concerning, it’s money that’s not going to hiring new 911 dispatchers, which we need desperately. It’s not going to hire new officers, which we need desperately.”
As for KCPD, Graves highlighted programs that are already in place for new recruits and existing officers alike. The department is aiming to cut down on the types of interactions that can lead to lawsuits. These lessons include the duty to intervene or breathing techniques to stay calm in tense situations. Chief Graves said under her watch, they’ve also started focusing on de-escalation techniques and increased training on people’s constitutional rights.
“It’s teaching officers just to have that in the back of their mind, to balance public safety and someone’s civil rights,” she explained. “I will say, the men and women of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department have millions of contacts every year, millions that go right. It’s these very few that, maybe, there might be one piece of that that just didn’t go the way it should have.”