Racial justice panel’s bills stalling in Kansas Legislature

Published: Mar. 20, 2021 at 11:40 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Legislature has so far not acted on proposals from a racial justice and equity commission established last year by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly following the killing of George Floyd, and neither the governor nor the commission members are pushing publicly for action.

The Commission on Racial Justice and Equity released a report in December with more than 30 recommendations to state legislators regarding policing practices, including proposals to ban no-knock warrants in drug cases and against hiring officers who have been fired for various offenses that include racially biased policing.

But five bills that address the commission’s recommendations have stalled in committees, and only one of them has even had a hearing. Both Kelly and said Sen. Kellie Warren, a Kansas City-area Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee where some of the bills would be heard, said a rewrite of the state’s emergency management law has taken priority in that committee.

The Republicans who control the Legislature have been critical of Kelly because last spring she imposed a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks and closed K-12 school buildings for the rest of the spring semester to check the spread of COVID-19. They’ve focused much of their energy this year on rewriting emergency management laws to curb the governor’s power and the power of local officials in future pandemics.

Last summer hundreds of people in cities including Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence joined those nationwide protesting the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while Floyd was held face-down on the ground handcuffed and saying he couldn’t breathe, and he eventually grew still. Body camera footage indicates Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

After the protests, Kelly appointed the commission, with representatives from law enforcement and advocacy groups, to find actions the state could take on issues of racial equity and justice.

“Communities of color do not have the luxury of time for leaders to address these issues,” Kelly said in a statement at the time.

This week, Kelly said racial justice is a priority for her administration but she hasn’t really given that much thought to why the racial justice and equity bills are stalling in legislative committees because she’s been focused on the emergency management rewrite. Her office didn’t respond to further questions about efforts to enact her commission’s agenda.

Shannon Portillo, co-chairwoman of Kelly’s commission, said the group’s work is really for the “long haul” and the commission looks forward to continuing to work with lawmakers in future sessions.

Several states have moved to ban no-knock warrants, which allow officers to enter a home without announcing their presence, often in drug cases to prevent suspects from getting rid of a stash. Activists seeking to ban the practice argue that it can prompt police to use excessive or deadly force, often against minorities, while also violating people’s constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Besides the no-knock bill and the bill to ban hiring officers who have resigned or been fired following an investigation alleging serious misconduct or excessive force, bills were introduced this session to require officers to collect race and ethnicity information for traffic stops, to require psychological testing of officers before certification and to create ways for people to pay down court fees and fines through community service to avoid long drivers license suspensions.

Those bills mirrored some of the commission’s recommendations.

State Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin in southwest Kansas, chairs the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee and said he didn’t schedule a hearing for a bill to ban no-knock warrants because he prioritized advancing other legislation, including a bill that would create a drug addiction program for people who enter into diversion agreements. Another bill he favored aims to reduce prison terms for low-level drug offenders.

“They keep people out of prison and in programs where we can receive better outcomes and stronger public safety,” Jennings said of the bills.

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat, introduced the bill that would require law enforcement offices to collect race data during traffic stops. But Warren, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman, didn’t hold a hearing on the bill.

Haley questioned when the Legislature might be willing to prioritize addressing racial inequity in policing, if not this session.

“Under the national cries for giving greater deference to race neutral policing. If not now, when?” Haley said.

Even so, Haley said he didn’t ask Warren to schedule a hearing on the bill, saying he hoped others would ask her.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.