State

In racial bias complaint against Kansas police, man sees deck stacked against him

New homeowner questioned by Tonganoxie police during early-morning move

Karle Robinson, 61, a military veteran, was moving into his new house at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday in Tonganoxie. Body camera recorded police handcuffing him while checking to see if he lived there.
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Karle Robinson, 61, a military veteran, was moving into his new house at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday in Tonganoxie. Body camera recorded police handcuffing him while checking to see if he lived there.

Karle Robinson felt the odds were against him when he made a complaint about racial profiling and was interviewed by an investigator from a Kansas police board.

State law and the system set up to judge his case gave him reason to think so.

Robinson, who is a black man, had filed the complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s office in March, claiming he had been racially profiled by a Tonganoxie police officer who handcuffed him outside his own home while he was moving a TV into his new house about 2 a.m. last summer.

Even after the incident, Robinson said, police harassed him by watching his house and following him to work. That only stopped, he said, when his story was reported by The Star.

He also said that, when he brought his concerns to Tonganoxie Police Chief Greg Lawson, the chief apparently did not take an official report of the complaint.

The attorney general referred Robinson’s case to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, or CPOST, a board appointed by the governor to discipline law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing.

On May 30 Robinson received a letter from the CPOST investigator explaining that the commission had closed his case with no action.

Robinson said he was not surprised.

“This is just a bunch of grumpy old white men in a room and here I am a lonely black man,” he said. “I knew they weren’t going to go in my favor.”

The people who made that decision would have been a three-man investigative committee made up of members of the commission, said CPOST Executive Director Gary Steed.

Currently, that committee consists of three white law enforcement officials: Jefferson County Sheriff Jeffrey Herrig, Graham County Sheriff B. Cole Presley and Louisburg Police Chief Timothy Bauer.

Once that committee has made a decision, Steed said, an officer is free to appeal it and have their case heard by the next committee. The complainant cannot appeal but can file a lawsuit.

CPOST can only act against individual officers, Steed said. This means if someone is upset with a police department as a whole there is nothing the commission can do about it.

The Kansas CPOST is different from other state boards because it has specific jurisdiction to act against an officer’s certification if they engage in racially biased policing, according to Roger Goldman, a professor at Saint Louis University who specializes in police licensing and revocation laws.

However, Goldman said, these cases are difficult to prove.

If there isn’t a record of an officer using a racial slur or saying something blatantly biased it is hard to prove that an officer was motivated by race rather than another factor, Goldman said. Cases such as Robinson’s, he said, are hard for commissions to act on.

“From the officer’s standpoint, it was not blatant,” Goldman said. “From a level of this is so obviously racial, to it’s so obviously not, to this one.”

Steed agreed with that assessment and said these cases are all handled on a case-by-case basis.

“We say all cases are fact specific,” Steed said. “We always avoid hypothetical stuff because you just can’t cover those variables.”

However, Lauren Bonds, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said these cases can be proved by looking at circumstantial evidence surrounding the case.

“Looking in the court context there are very few court cases where racial bias is alleged where you have a smoking gun of racial bias. A lot of times it’s circumstantial evidence that gets you there,” Bonds said.

In Kansas, for action to be taken against an officer who has acted with racial bias, Steed said, there needs to be proof that the officer made an “unreasonable” use of race as a factor in deciding to take action.

According to the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Act, an action is only considered racially biased policing if race is the sole basis of the officer’s decision and is not “used in combination with other identifying factors as part of a specific individual description to initiate an enforcement action.”

Since January 2014 Kansas CPOST has posted integrity bulletins on their website explaining the cases reviewed and actions taken against an officer.

In that time there was not one reported incident where the commission acted against an officer who used racially biased policing.

Steed said this is likely because the cases are difficult to prove.

Bonds, however, argued that it is evidence of a larger systemic problem.

“Obviously there’s a breakdown in that process,” she said.

While Robinson said he understood that these cases can be hard to prove, he felt that the commission didn’t take his complaint seriously. He said that, in order to be fair, the commission needs to bring in more women and minorities.

“This is the good old boy club and that’s all that was,” he said.

Robinson said he is planning to speak with the ACLU to determine what his next steps will be.

“This isn’t over with by a long shot,” he said.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.
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