WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has begun investigating possible patterns of racial discrimination in the hiring and promotion of black police officers in Kansas City, Missouri, according to city officials.
The investigation will focus on allegations that Kansas City Police Department managers created “a hostile work environment” that contributed to racial disparities in the 1,100-member force, including assignments and disciplinary actions, according to a letter sent to the department’s board on Monday.
The study was partly prompted by a series of articles in the Kansas City Star documenting the complaints of 25 black current and former officers. White supervisors, they said, subjected subordinates to racial abuse and forced out black officers for minor infractions or unsubstantiated charges.
Perhaps as a result, fewer black officers are now serving in the ranks than at almost any time in decades, contributing to the overall shrinking of the force as violent crime has hit Missouri’s two largest cities, Kansas City and St. Louis, especially hard.
Police department leaders vowed to cooperate with federal investigators and to enforce any changes needed to address a pattern that critics say stretches back years.
It is the department’s policy “to provide a work atmosphere free of actual or perceived discrimination and harassment,” Joseph Mabin, the interim police chief, said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Kristen M. Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, had no comment.
Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat who has long been critical of the Police Department’s practices, told reporters Monday that the problems have been known for years. The department’s board of police commissioners, on which he now sits, should have conducted its own investigation years ago, he said.
“I think it’s time — frankly, past time — that we look internally at the department to see what we can do better,” he said.
This month, City Auditor Douglas Jones announced he would investigate hiring practices in the department, whose force has down 20 percent over the past decadedespite a sharp increase in violent crime in recent years.
Under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the department has expanded its scrutiny of police departments over discriminatory practices against racial minorities and women.
It is essential that city leaders embrace the investigation. While federal inquiries can result in lawsuits, they are most often used as a starting point for settlement agreements, which typically include significant overhauls of police or employment practices and a mechanism to monitor a department’s compliance.
Under Ms. Clarke, the department initiated a handful of high-profile pattern-or-practice studieswhich is intended to determine whether a state or local law enforcement agency uses “excessive force, biased policing, and other unconstitutional practices.”
Clarke oversees the Minneapolis Police Department’s investigation into the killing of George Floyd, the Louisville Police Department’s actions before the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and other investigations into police conduct in Louisiana, Phoenix and Mt. Vernon, NY
The Kansas City investigation, while part of the administration’s efforts to address racial disparities in all facets of government, is based on a separate provision of federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace.