Posted on April 19, 2019

Message to Young Black Men in KC: No Dreadlocks, White T-Shirts or Risk Going to Jail

Kansas City Star Editorial Board, Kansas City Star, April 12, 2019

The message to young black men in Kansas City is clear: Don’t sport dreadlocks and a white T-shirt, or you could be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit.

At least that’s what U.S. District Judge Greg Kays and some officers in the Kansas City Police Department conveyed in an unsettling case of mistaken identity.

Kays’ decision to dismiss a federal lawsuit against Kansas City police alleging civil rights violations highlights biases and shortcomings ingrained in the criminal justice system.

In tossing the case, Kays ruled officers could reasonably believe probable cause existed to arrest then-15-year-old Tyree Bell. {snip}

In 2016, officers responded to a report that three black teenagers were brandishing a firearm in a south Kansas City neighborhood. One of the teens had shoulder-length dreadlocks. The teen, armed with a gun, fled on foot.


Tyree, though, is 6 feet, 3 inches tall. The fleeing suspect stood about five inches shorter, according to a radio call from pursuing officers. Tyree and the suspect also were wearing markedly different shorts and shoes.

“Here, the fleeing suspect and (Tyree) were physically similar: They both were black, juvenile males who had a similar height, weight, body build, hair color, hair style and hair length,” Kays wrote in a motion for summary judgment. “They also both wore unstained white t-shirts and black and red shoes.”

The inability of officers Jonathan Munyan and Peter Neukirch to differentiate between an innocent teen and a gun-wielding suspect is troubling at best. Even more shocking is the fact that a federal judge would allow police to rely on an all-black-people-look-alike-defense to dismiss a lawsuit.


{snip} After much prodding from James, Kansas City Police Detective John Mattivi eventually viewed the footage. Mattivi determined that Tyree was not the armed teen who ran from officers.

James sued the police department on Tyree’s behalf in 2017 for unlawful arrest, negligent training and supervision and deprivation of constitutional rights.


“Even if (Tyree’s) arrest was a mistake, it was not objectively reasonable,” Benson wrote. He’s right.


Kansas City police should take a hard look at the department’s implicit bias training and the policies that allowed officers to arrest and detain the wrong person for weeks, without repercussions.

Kansas City police and local prosecutors also should evaluate their reliance on eyewitness testimony, even from officers. Reasonable reforms could address underlying issues between officers and communities of color.


Data shows wrongful arrests and convictions generally affect young black males such as Tyree more than any other group. Some have spent years, sometimes even decades behind bars. Tyree is fortunate in that regard. But he has panic attacks when he sees a patrol car.


[Editor’s Note: The editorial board of the Kansas City Star is all white.]