Board faults discipline for police who joked about violence

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Law enforcement officers in Kansas weren’t adequately punished for joking about police violence and exchanging racist comments and images in a series of text messages, an independent report found.

The Wichita Citizen’s Review Board released the 27-page report Tuesday. It details officers sharing an image of a naked African American male sitting on another African American male behind a police vehicle. There also are negative references to Mexicans, Muslims and gays, officers joke about violence and share images of a Confederate flag, according to the report, which highlights issues first uncovered by The Wichita Eagle.

“The contents of some messages show racial bias — or at minimum, a lack of cultural sensitivity and bad judgment,” the report said. “Other messages reveal disrespect for command authority and disrespect for efforts by the Department to promote de-escalation as a policy and to reduce use of force.”

Created in 2018, the board is made up of business executives, non-profit workers and pastors. Members have the ability to review investigative reports on police cases, but it is only an advisory group. It cannot conduct its own investigations or recommend discipline for specific officers.

Investigators first discovered the messages in April 2021 while searching the phone of a Sedgwick County deputy in an unrelated case, according to The Eagle.

The board, which met five times, focused its review on eight cases involving 12 Wichita police officers — all of them SWAT team members. The bulk of the messages occurred between May 2018 and February 2021. Not all officers participated in all the messaging.

In one exchange, a sergeant sent a message to three officers, praising them for being the “Ultimate De-Escalators,” saying they “permanently” de-escalated “people who needed permanent de-escalation.”

In another message, an officer told a sergeant, “Hey Wyatt Earp. How about saving some bad guys for us to deal with.” The officer adds that “you keep putting holes in all the good targets.”

The board complained in the report that the police department “failed to appropriately discipline the officers involved.” Police has not responded to a phone message from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The report said all of the reviewed cases were initially charged as conduct unbecoming of an officer, which generally carries a punishment of suspension on a first offense.

But one officer had that charge reduced to insulting a supervisor upon retiring. Another officer got a written reprimand. In all the other cases, the conduct was reclassified as failure to use good judgement, with the officers receiving mentoring but no discipline.

Four officers mentioned in the report resigned or retired before the group’s review and a fifth person retired during the review.

The report doesn’t touch on the conduct of the sheriff’s deputies.

“We do not accept as a defense to the conduct that the messages were ‘private messages’ or that the Department should not regulate this conduct because it is “protected speech” under the First Amendment or did not involve officers on duty,” the report said. “On duty or not, these officers were communicating with fellow officers related to their policing activity.”

The report also raised concerns that the police union had intervened inappropriately and noted that the city manager has convened a separate group to review the police department’s disciplinary process.

The board said the messages have the ability to harm efforts the department has made to improve relationships with the community.

Board members wrote in their conclusion that they were “frustrated by this entire case.”