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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.
The Kansas Fraternal Order of Police involves itself in any disciplinary matter involving officers.
That means the organization is involved in investigations of Wichita law enforcement changing answers on a form that condemned C.J. Lofton to jail rather than to a hospital. Lofton was killed by juvenile jail staff. The FOP also is involved in investigations of Wichita officers circulating racist social media memes and praising officers who shot and killed people.
The group advises officers, helps them mount a defense, and fights for them to get their jobs back if fired. It offers insurance plans covering civil action and administrative hearing costs. It boasts more than 3,100 police officers, deputies, troopers and investigators across the state.
According to its website, it also “aggressively provides a professional, full service legislative operation.” Members sometimes appear in Statehouse hearings in full uniform as a show of force. “The FOP coordinates … legislative activities, providing our membership with a full-time lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” the site says.
But this work, while laudable in some cases, has few guardrails. The truth is, the FOP isn’t accountable to citizens yet wields enormous power to shield police officers from punishment for behavior that harms citizens. If bad officers survive investigations and return to the streets, they usually have the FOP to thank. This should concern us.
I emailed the Kansas FOP but did not hear back. I found much of the information above — from its numbers in Kansas to its Legal Defense Plan — on the organization’s website.
In my years as a journalist, law enforcement leaders have shared their frustrations with the FOP, saying that after working for years to jettison substandard officers, the organization returned them to the street. Law enforcement leaders have said it’s difficult to even discipline wayward officers because of the FOP’s influence. Black officers have said the FOP tends not to represent them as zealously as it represents white officers, if it represents them at all.
I’m guessing FOP leadership would say they’re just protecting the rights of police officers, in the same way that everyone deserves due process.
And let’s be clear: All officers deserve protections.
My dad and granddad served as chief of police in my parents’ hometown of Boley, Oklahoma. My sister is a retired cop. I had family in the Wichita Police Department.
I don’t hate police.
But I do hate how little accountability police have. I hate how people like Lofton end up dead and no one even faces charges. I hate how rare police prosecutions are in the face of mounting complaints lodged over decades by citizens.
Consider the Wichita Police Department’s current scandal. The officers got much weaker punishment because of FOP influence.
Wichita city manager Bob Layton, bless his heart, claims he didn’t know anything about the social media scandal. His request for an independent investigation came only after the council pressured him to take action. He controls the police department budget and met regularly with the police chief.
Meanwhile, the feds are investigating a retired Kansas City detective accused of terrorizing Black women for decades and for framing an innocent man who spent years in prison because the man’s mother spurned the detective’s advances.
So now, Kansas’ two largest police departments face external investigations and seem to have internal issues.
Kansas isn’t alone.
In 2016, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw received 263 years in prison for numerous rapes and sexual assaults of eight women while on duty. How many women complained about Holtzclaw as he continued his predatory patrols?
Just this week, the Baltimore Sun released a blockbuster story on a former police sergeant who admitted to, among a list of offenses, planting evidence, lying to a grand jury, stealing money and drugs from drug dealers and having it sold on his behalf, and helping officers get their stories straight after a shooting.
But we don’t get to see how the FOP handles any of these cases. Does it refuse to provide a defense for officers like Holtzclaw? How many times will it represent officers such as the one in Baltimore?
If the FOP helped any such officer, what could we do about it? Remember, it’s accountable only to membership.
So, while I think police deserve union protections, I also think we deserve protection — from both.
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