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White Kansas lawmaker denies racism in House: ‘This body is more compassionate and loving’

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TOPEKA — Debate over a police bill last week turned into a discussion of Statehouse racism, with a white lawmaker asserting the House was too “loving and compassionate” to pass racist policy.

A Black lawmaker disagreed.

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The conversation stemmed from debate about Senate Bill 174, which the House passed 113-9 and the Senate passed 31-7. While the legislation would decriminalize fentanyl testing strips, as well as other drug testing strips, another section of the broad bill increases penalties for people fleeing police officers.

The bill makes fleeing a law enforcement officer a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on what crime the fleeing person has been charged with, and applies to cases where the officer had reason to stop the person and gave the person an visual or audible signal to stop.

Rep. Ford Carr, a Wichita Democrat who is Black, said during debate Thursday that the bill would punish young Black men who were afraid of police interactions.

Studies have consistently shown that Black people, especially Black men, are at great risk of police discrimination and violence. In 2021, Black people, who account for 13% of the U.S. population, accounted for 27% of those fatally shot and killed by police, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit group that tracks police shootings.

“I can’t promise you that by the week’s end there won’t be another case where you see some unarmed African American male who’s been shot for almost nothing,” Carr said. “That fear is warranted.”

Carr also spoke about his own experiences with fear. He told his fellow lawmakers that young women still jump into their cars and lock the doors when he walks by.

“People are scared, and when they’re scared they do things,” Carr said. “They try to evade and get away.”

Rep. Ford Carr speaks during an April 27, 2023, debate about his concerns with legislation that increases penalties for people who flee police in fear. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

In Wichita, the city has spent thousands of dollars defending a police department gang list that organizations say targets Black and Latino residents identified as gang members with little or no evidence and then subjects them to severe consequences.

The city has spent more than $267,000 in legal fees since the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed began their lawsuit over the gang list in 2021.

A white lawmaker, Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, said he was sick of discussing racism because he wasn’t racist. He said the police provision wasn’t about race.

“Pretty near every single bill that we do up here involves race or bigotry or whatever else,” Jacobs said. “I’m getting tired of being accused for that, for something I have not done and do not do and will not do. There’s no race in this. None. We’ve got to stop making it such a political ploy.”

Jacobs said the majority white body of House lawmakers are not racist.

“It’s not about race or racism here,” Jacobs said. “And if it is, I believe that this body is more compassionate and loving to not embrace that. It gets old.”

Carr responded directly to Jacobs’ comments.

“I would be a bitter fool to believe that there isn’t someone in here or some people within this body where race is an issue,” Carr said. “The fact that we want to wish it away is easy when it doesn’t affect you.”

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who is Black, also spoke against the bill during the Thursday Senate discussion.

“Perhaps not in your neck of the woods but in some of mine, a cop just comes up to you and wants to start having a conversation for whatever reason and you have no reason to,” Haley said. “They just don’t want to have that interaction.”

Fentanyl test strips

As overdose deaths continue to increase statewide, advocates have lobbied for protections against fentanyl.

While legal fentanyl is prescribed for pain relief, illegal fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs as an inexpensive way of creating a more powerful high. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Kansas saw the highest number of drug-related deaths recorded in the past 20 years in 2021, with opioid cases nearly doubling between 2020 and 2021, and fentanyl involved in most of those cases.

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People taking fentanyl-laced drugs are at a greater risk of overdose because the opioid can’t be detected without test strips — strips that are currently illegal in Kansas.

Bipartisan advocates of fentanyl test strips say legalization could help to prevent overdose deaths. SB 174 would decriminalize fentanyl testing strips, as well as other drug testing strips and increase criminal penalties for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances.

Fentanyl would be listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same classification as meth.

While test strip legalization has bipartisan support in both chambers, Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, said he was wary. 

Steffen said strip legalization would encourage drug use. 

“It ultimately, in many scenarios, is enabling people to use drugs, encouraging people to explore with illegal drugs, and that will be an unintended consequence,” Steffen said. 

Other bill provisions

The bill also extends the scope of Attorney General Kris Kobach’s power, something lawmakers have warned against in past months

Current Kansas law limits the attorney general to prosecuting cases in which the offender was an officer or employee of a city or county. This legislation grants the attorney general concurrent authority with a county or district attorney to prosecute any crimes involving criminal conduct occurring in two or more counties.

Kobach has said this expansion of power is needed to fight organized retail crime, in which criminals steal shopping carts full of goods from big-box stores in multiple counties. It is not clear how much Kansas is affected by such crime.  

Another bill provision would add battery of a health care provider to the list of crimes for battery, giving health care officials more protection against violence. 

Another part of the bill would add domestic battery and protection order violations to the list of crimes a person can have the intent to commit when committing burglary or aggravated burglary.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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