In the aftermath of a fatal shooting by police, concerned Topeka residents have joined forces to influence the shape of the community’s dialogue. What does their experience say about exercising leadership from below?
The task of making that call in many places tends to fall on those with governmental authority, such as City Council members, a city manager or a police chief. But what can residents do if they believe their concerns aren’t being adequately addressed? Are they allowed to take matters into their own hands? And, if they do, what might be the consequences?
This situation has played out in recent months in Topeka after police there shot and killed a man last year on a warm September morning. The shooting occurred after police responding to a call about shots being fired encountered the man in an east-side park and thought he was acting suspiciously. The man, who had a handgun in his clothing, tried to flee and was fatally shot in the back by police.
The death of Dominique Tyrell White – a light-skinned man of African-American, Caucasian and Native-American descent – first provoked shock. Then came outrage for his family and others. White’s death was a sad reminder of what a violent year Topeka was enduring. In all, 30 people died in homicides in 2017, the most in the city’s recorded history.
White’s family was obviously distraught. There were questions in many quarters about how the shooting had happened and whether it was justified. It was inevitably compared to shootings of other black men by police across the country. The Lawrence Police Department was brought in to investigate the shooting (it later submitted a report to the Shawnee County district attorney), but neither the names of the officers nor the footage from the body cameras they wore during the shooting initially were released to the public.
Distressed and confused by a lack of details, family and friends organized protests and, for a short time, maintained a tent camp outside the Topeka Police Department. With the investigation ongoing and Topeka City Council members taking the advice of legal counsel to remain silent, entreaties to appointed and elected officials seemed fruitless. They asked residents to trust the process.
As weeks passed, some residents began pushing for a public dialogue on the issues surrounding the shooting of White. Describing themselves as concerned citizens of the City of Topeka, they approached officials in December with a written request for a special meeting of the City Council.
Rose Welch, who lives in Topeka’s southernmost City Council district, District 5, delivered the letter on behalf of the residents to the mayor’s office. She and the others joining the effort – Martinez Hillard, Oshara Meesha, Yasmari Rodriguez, Brian Moore, the Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, John and Tracy Metcalf, and RJ Dobbs – hailed from seven of the city’s nine City Council districts.
When city officials didn’t agree to the meeting, the residents decided to schedule their own public forum at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.
Although the individuals involved described themselves as concerned citizens, in written responses to questions from The Journal, they indicated that it wasn’t an official name. “We’re not a group in a formal sense,” says Hillard. “Our desire for transparency and accountability from our police forces is what brought us together to do so.”
Meesha, an artist, says there’s also no formal leader for the group. “We saw there was a need, so we are working in a co-working style to bring about a solution, or several solutions,” she says.
“It’s genuine grassroots spontaneity in the heartland,” Welch says.
JUMPING BACK IN
A group that arises in response to an issue or incident, with a grassroots following and no formal structure is not new, but it’s newly relevant in an age where interactions are heavily driven by digital communications and social media. Across the country, movements as varied in their politics from Black Lives Matter to the Tea Party have found themselves at the center of political debate without having – at least initially – a traditional center to guide their decisions.
Interaction between the hierarchies reflected in institutions such as local government and those in grassroots organizing can produce tension and discomfort. Movements doing this work can get tagged in the community with pejorative labels such as “troublemakers.”
At least one of the organizers involved in Topeka’s concerned citizens effort came to the movement after a frustrating experience with trying to foster dialogue between residents and the government in a more traditional way.
The Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, who attended a Kansas Leadership Center program is 2015, has been the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka since the summer of 2014 and has a long history as a community organizer.
In 2016, she worked with several other people to organize a community meeting to discuss racial tensions with the police department at a local church.
“The meeting didn’t go well, although it was well attended,” she says. “More than 300 people showed up in the black community to talk about the issue, but the police department and city leaders controlled the agenda tightly and citizen voices didn’t get a prominent hearing. Frustration in the audience led to a participant calling out the police chief, and then the meeting was shut down.”
Oglesby-Dunegan also began working with others to create a group to address racial justice in Topeka.
As was evident in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, which found racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional, Topeka has a long history on the issue. Neighborhoods such as East Topeka, with populations of people of color and lower-income families, tend to lag wealthier parts of the community in terms of quality of life.
At the same time, residents of areas such as East Topeka tend to be less civically engaged than their counterparts in other parts of the city. The precinct that is home to the park where White was shot is in the bottom 20 percent of Topeka’s precincts for voter registration and voting rates.
But after meeting for nearly a year and working on advancing the idea of a citizen board to review the actions of law enforcement, interest dwindled, Oglesby-Dunegan says. White’s shooting, however, was a catalyst.
“After Dominique White was killed, many of the same people I had been working with wanted to support the family and speak out on this issue. So I jumped back in,” Oglesby-Dunegan says.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MEETING
On Dec. 20, 2017, the first floor of the auditorium at the library filled with more than 150 people who were offered the chance to speak. There were no hard-and-fast goals, other than letting Topekans say their piece. Speakers included people who had lost children to encounters with the police and those who felt they had been profiled by the police because of their race. They decried what they saw as a lack of transparency by leaders and police in the city.
As one of those who had organized the meeting, Welch emphasized a quest for “transparency and accountability.” Leslie Vetaw Caldwell, founder of Mothers of Murdered Sons, spoke about the death of her son, Kenneth Leray Vetaw, whose killing helped push Topeka’s death toll into record territory. African-American men of varied ages described negative encounters with police.
Elected city officials were invited to sit at the front of the meeting room but not allowed to speak. The city’s outgoing mayor, Larry Wolgast, and mayor-elect, Michelle De La Isla, were both on hand. But the chairs reserved for several City Council members sat empty. Organizers marked their absence by putting up printed out photos of those council members on the backs of their designated chairs.
Police were not invited. Some people spoke openly and harshly about officials, both about those in attendance that night and others who were not.
At the heart of the debate were issues of transparency and accountability. How do members of the community know that the police are acting appropriately? In the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, which followed the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, law enforcement departments across the state began having their officers wear body cameras in an effort to increase transparency.
But the competing values over the release of police body camera footage (see the Winter 2016 Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 1) have made the videos
a focal point for public controversy. Authorities in Topeka, like some of their counterparts elsewhere in Kansas, were initially reluctant to release video footage of the shooting to protect the integrity of their criminal investigation. Evidence, city officials said in a statement to the media, shouldn’t be released outside of a trial setting because of the potential to taint a jury pool or affect the outcome of a criminal case.
By the time of the activists’ public meeting in December, White’s father had seen the footage of his son’s death – after waiting 11 weeks – but the public had not. The situation has prompted debate in the Legislature, spearheaded in part
by state Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, about changing the law to allow the families of those shot by police to have access to recordings much more quickly.
The stalemate between organizers and city officials over the video left some in attendance unclear about the next steps and the group’s goals. Did organizers want justice for the White family or a bigger change in policies and conditions in Topeka? Welch said simply that they would be working on building strategy and coalitions.
“There is neither a group or a name,” Welch says. “There’s been a lot of confusion about this, because it is atypical.”
TO WHAT ENDS?
A week after the meeting, Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay announced the results of his legal analysis of the shooting of White. He found the actions of the two officers were justified.
Body camera footage of the police confrontation with White was released, as well as autopsy details that showed White had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system. White also was a convicted felon legally prohibited under state and federal law from possessing a firearm. Evidence suggested that White fired the shots that brought officers to the area. Thus, the district attorney concluded, White had good reason to flee and hide that he was in possession of a firearm.
Details also surfaced about the record of one of the officers involved, who could be identified in the video. But the police chief determined that the officers involved had acted in accordance with departmental policies. Because it considers the discipline of officers a personnel matter, the city won’t release any information about what disciplinary action, if any, might have been taken.
Such announcements have not provided closure for White’s family. An attorney for the family told The Associated Press in late December that they did not think police needed to use deadly force and that White’s constitutional rights had been violated.
In the aftermath of Kagay’s announcement, activists conducted a second public meeting in January. White’s stepmother, Molly, made a public statement indicating that the family was upset with the decisions of the district attorney and the police chief.
The stated purpose of the meeting was to move beyond airing grievances to bringing about change. Organizers listed several questions they hoped to explore: “What does it look like when a community loses confidence in their leadership? What actions can we take to heal our community? Please join us for a frank discussion and airing of community concerns regarding accountability, transparency, city leadership, police policy, and the death of Dominique White.” City Council members again were invited to attend as listeners, not as speakers.
Those at the meeting discussed keeping the heat on long enough to influence change. Welch quoted from the 1971 book “Rules for Radicals” by Saul Alinsky: “No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.” (Alinsky is an icon on the left, known as the father of community organizing. He’s often a target of conservative criticism, but some on the right have also borrowed from his tactics.)
To what ends would the heat be applied?
Meeting attendees were invited to join working groups to research possible community-led initiatives to address issues including:
A review board working group. Wichita and Lawrence recently created similar boards.
Lessons from de-escalation training for police officers.
Lessons from the Denver Justice Project, a community engagement effort designed to change the criminal justice system and racial injustice.
A know-your-rights campaign.
Topeka Police Department outreach.
Democracy in action working group.
At a third meeting, which occurred in late February, the effort’s evolution over several months continued. This time, Topeka’s police chief, Bill Cochran, was invited to attend the event, which drew about 50 people to the library. Cochran expressed a willingness to sit down and discuss transparency and police-related issues, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported. De La Isla, now officially the mayor, expressed a willingness to consider models for a citizen review board (there’s already a chief’s advisory board that Cochran is revamping). In May, Cochran announced the launch of 15-member citizens advisory council “to serve as a bridge between the community and the public.”
Organizers say that being able to include more people in the dialogue is one of their most important goals. “We make serious and systematic efforts to ensure that any different voices are heard and invited to speak,” says Oglesby-Dunegan. “Everyone has a place at this table.”
Although they’ve borne the brunt of some of the criticism at the meetings organized by Topeka’s concerned citizens, some of those with ties to the city’s established hierarchies spoke optimistically about their contributions.
Topeka Councilwoman Karen Hiller reflected on her experience as an organizer and leader of a nonprofit agency and her interactions with the group’s members. She sees them learning and growing. She noted that a part of leadership is staying on point with a goal and understanding that evaluation and adjustment may be necessary.
Will the Topeka group be successful? “I hope so,” she says.
Former Topeka Mayor Joan Wagnon, who now leads the YWCA’s Advocacy Committee, says, “The hardest thing is for a group to think beyond the outrage of a specific incident and to look for systemic solutions. The ones that can do that emerge as the leaders, and that’s when true change can emerge.”
Comments like Wagnon’s give a sense that it’s not clear yet what has been accomplished. Now that more is known about the circumstances surrounding White’s death, will the incident remain a catalyst for change?
From Hillard’s perspective, part of the group’s role is creating a way for more people to become engaged in the issues that affect the daily lives of Topekans.
“You have to make it accessible for citizens to participate in the process,” says Hillard. “It’s about providing information and insight and equipping folks with the tools to feel empowered. When you know who was elected to council for your district, who your community police officer is, how to register to vote and who your state legislator is, it’s a lot easier to know what direction you can aim your grievances.”
In doing so, the hope is to narrow the gap in understanding between the voices in the community who wield significant authority and those who aren’t heard quite so often. While it’s been contentious and uncomfortable at times, there are signals – passage of state legislation on body cameras, the police chief’s citizens advisory council – that the group has made some gains in achieving that goal.
“Our goal is to empower our City Council and our police leadership to concern themselves with these issues and to join us in applying pressure on our local police forces, knowing that it’s not just the work of concerned citizens to bring attention to police harassment, brutality and officer-involved shootings,” Hillard says. “With that said, we continue to invite our neighbors to join us in raising our voices to speak out against injustice. We can no longer wait for someone else to do this work. We all have a role in this.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.