On a late, cold night in Kansas City, Missouri on February 5, 1967, an African-American male, Mr. John Smith,* was travelling home from work when he was detained by an officer of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department ("Department") for traffic infractions. The results of this police contact resulted in Mr. Smith being beaten, hospitalized and cited for careless driving, failure to obey a lawful police order and resisting arrest.
At this time in our history, the citizens of Kansas City had no form of redress against alleged misconduct by an officer. Each time an incident of this nature would occur, it would create racial tension, bitterness and disharmony between the police department and the minority community. Additionally, there had been many allegations of improper treatment, brutality or excessive force or other wrongful conduct by the police towards minorities, especially African-Americans. The Kansas City, Missouri Board of Police Commissions ("Board"), a group of citizens appointed by the Governor of Missouri, was not attentive to the problems and needs of the community, and did not act on the complaints of the community.
In Mr. Smith's case, he was fortunate to have Attorney Sidney Willens represent him on the criminal charges and before the Board. Even though Attorney Willens had many racial and legal battles to overcome, he successfully defended Mr. Smith, resulting in the prosecutor dismissing the charges and the subject officer being disciplined. Even though he had won Mr. Smith's case, Attorney Willens knew this issue would surface again and again (and it did - Kansas City had riots in the spring of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) until some mechanism was put into place to adequately handle complaints of police abuse and misconduct. Attorney Willens undertook the project of researching and studying grievance machinery in other cities. After many long hours, he came up with a detailed set of recommendations to establish a civilian complaint review board to which an individual could register a complaint against an officer. In a letter dated February 26, 1969, which accompanied his proposal to the Chief of Police Clarence M. Kelley (who later became the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations), Attorney Willens summarized the considerable dissatisfaction in the manner in which the Department responded to citizens' complaints.
On the evening of February 26, 1969, after Police Chief Kelley reviewed the proposal, he convened a meeting with Attorney Willens, Lt. Col. James Newmann, Assistant to the Chief, and Mr. Manfred Maier, Legal Advisor for the Department. The information provided by Attorney Willens convinced the Department to begin researching the complaint process and to devise a remedy to address the concerns of the community.
This innovation proposed by Attorney Willens stirred a great deal of controversy in
Kansas City. Since there were so many diverse opinions about the complaint concept, the Board held public meetings to allow input from the entire community. Many citizens and civil rights organizations endorsed the complaint process and perceived it as a means to abate the racial tension and bridge the ever-widening gap between the community and the police. However, some citizens, including members of the Department, were against the proposal because they thought it was unnecessary and would negatively affect the morale of the officers. This debate went on for months, with some citizens even advocating that a public referendum be held to decide the matter.
Nevertheless, on September 5, 1969, the Board voted and adopted Attorney Willens' proposal and several procedures established by the New York City Civilian Employees Complaint system as the new complaint process for Kansas City. Also, at this time, the Board described the general composition of the entity which would handle the complaints - the Office of Citizen Complaints. Finally, on September 25, 1969, after the Board held two (2) additional public meetings, the Office of Citizen Complaints officially opened its doors. Dr. Ben Morris Ridpath was the Director, with Mr. Willie Walton (who became the Director on October 31, 1976 and retired June 6, 1996) and Mr. John Halvey as his assistants.
The history of the Office of Citizen Complaints probably mirrors that of other civilian review systems, in that it was a turbulent and arduous undertaking. However, those in Kansas City who challenged the Department and the Board felt it was important to implement a complaint process because over the years it has assisted in facilitating understanding and conciliation between the citizen and the police. Furthermore, almost forty (40) years ago, those pioneers believed the complaint process restored the citizens' confidence in the Department and reduced the racial tension which was plaguing Kansas City.
In 2002 the name of the office was changed to the Office of Community Complaints, to reflect the availability of the complaint process to any person, regardless of their status as a citizen of the United States.
Today, the Office of Community Complaints continues to be free of police control and operates under the authority of the Board. The Office utilizes the same approach (with some modernization, such as computers and databases) which was implemented in 1969 to impartially review citizens' complaints. Further, the Office remains committed to its primary purpose and mission, which is to protect the citizen from the possibility of abuse of conduct on the part of police officers, and at the same time protect the police officers from unjust and unfair allegations which may be made by citizens.
Currently, the Office is charged with the processing of complaints which fall into one of the following categories:
1. Bias-Based Policing
3. Excessive Use of Force
5. Improper Member Conduct
6. Improper Procedure
The Office processes an average of 450 investigated complaints a year (not counting mediations and conciliations) and makes recommendations to the Board of Police Commissioner and the Chief of Police (who has the responsibility of deciding on the appropriate disciplinary action). A recommendation can be one which sustains the complaint against the member, or one which exonerates him. Complaints may also be not-sustained against the member, meaning that the evidence available does not clearly indicate whether there is or is not a violation of police department policy and procedure.
The Office guarantees the residents of Kansas City that all complaints will be expeditiously mediated, conciliated, or investigated, fairly and thoroughly analyzed and properly remedied when there is a violation by an officer. This impartial resolution of complaints is meant to assist in maintaining the credible public image characteristic of the Department and to improve the relationship between the Department and the community it serves.
The Office is preparing to celebrate its fortieth anniversary in September 2009. We are very proud of the Office's history and are grateful to Attorney Willens for his commitment to create a fair and impartial mechanism for redress of grievances for all citizens.
* Fictitious name