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Reform efforts, public safety concerns shape the debate over who should be Wyandotte County’s district attorney

The death of George Floyd has inspired a nationwide debate over police use of force, training and funding, but a district attorney’s race in Wyandotte County is boiling down to questions of not just reform but also competence and public safety.

Mark Dupree became the first Black person elected as a district attorney in Kansas four years ago when he unseated a longtime incumbent. Now he faces a challenge of his own from Kristiane Bryant, a prosecutor who has worked in Wyandotte County; Jackson County, Missouri; and the Kansas attorney general’s office. Both are Democrats. With no Republican challenger, the winner of the Aug. 4 primary will claim victory.

Dupree has clashed loudly, often and publicly with local law enforcement during his tenure, and he’s faced criticism of his methods as well as opposition to a unit he formed to investigate wrongful convictions. He also ended the prosecution of Lamonte McIntyre, who spent 23 years wrongly imprisoned for a double murder. 

Among his critics is the police union, a historically mighty force in local politics that backs Bryant. Others, including some of his former supporters, say his inexperience and missteps in the courtroom violate the rights of victims’ families and put the community’s public safety in danger.

His supporters doubt that Bryant would do much to rattle the status quo, one in which police officers are facing allegations in a federal civil lawsuit of corruption and abusing their power in policing communities of color. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation recently turned over information from its investigation of one officer to federal authorities, KCUR-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate, reported. 

The primary vote could be one of the first local tests in Kansas of the political landscape following Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The winner will face no shortage of challenges: healing deep divisions among minority constituents, offering new and possibly untested justice methods, while also balancing the need for public safety and creating collective purpose among deeply entrenched factions. And too, the community’s judgment will be rendered as activists protest across the country.

Police and prosecutors traditionally work closely together, but their roles in the criminal justice system are not the same. One local advocacy group, Showing Up for Racial Justice, that organizes anti-racism efforts by whites says that more Americans are realizing that it’s OK if the police and district attorney’s office disagree publicly. 

“Many Americans are realizing for the first time what a powerful role their DA has, particularly in terms of bringing charges against police officers. The traditionally harmonious relationship the DA has had with police has often shielded officers from real accountability, even in cases of egregious officer misconduct.

After George Floyd’s killing “social media was flooded with calls to action for folks nationwide to call the Hennepin County (Minnesota) DA and demand he file charges against the officers. The public is starting to get very clear on that relationship – the next step is for the public to turn that attention and energy on their own communities. The DA is an elected official, and therefore a point where public pressure and opinion can influence what is oftentimes an obscure, bureaucratic institution,” the group’s volunteer leaders wrote in a statement issued to The Journal.

But Dupree faces plenty of scrutiny for how he’s running his office. The Kansas City Star recently published an editorial criticizing Dupree for “lenient plea deals, missing and belated subpoenas, unlawful delays in producing evidence for defense attorneys and violent cases being dismissed and suspects let free.” The situation, the newspaper said, is endangering public safety.

Dupree responded in a commentary of his own saying The Star’s characterization of his record was misleading and that locking up more individuals wouldn’t solve the community’s crime problem. Dupree also wrote that one of the reasons he faces opposition is that the police union doesn’t want him investigating the validity of past convictions.

“My reforms threaten the status quo in Wyandotte County, and that’s the only reason so many people who benefit from the status quo want to derail my office’s progress,” he wrote.

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree

As he seeks a second term in office, Mark Dupree (right), with wife Shanelle Dupree and Congresswoman Sharice Davids, faces criticism that his courtroom missteps threaten public safety. (courtesy photo)

Setting the direction of the office

Dupree has never been shy about calls for reform, recently telling KCUR that he’s fighting “good old boy traditions.” 

The DA, who is also a pastor at Grace Tabernacle Church, won over voters four years ago by promising change. Dupree argues that he has delivered even if it’s made some people uncomfortable. Almost from the start, Dupree made some uneasy. He made sweeping staff changes, firing several experienced prosecutors. 

Dupree also asked the KBI to investigate cases in which a police officer kills a suspect. Leaving it up to a local DA’s office is problematic, he says, because too often the local police and prosecutors know one another too well. He also created a community integrity unit to investigate police use of excessive force or misconduct. Many of those moves, he says, angered law enforcement not eager to accept his changes.

Dupree argues that he has taken a holistic approach to criminal justice. He works to address the problems that lead to crime. Dupree goes out into the community, to schools and elsewhere to listen to what constituents need and want.

Dupree is adamant that not all defendants need to be locked behind bars in prison if there is a suitable alternative. He believes the behavioral health court, drug court or veterans court provides that outlet for some. He would like to see district judges create wholesale change when it comes to bail so it doesn’t create more financial inequity by allowing families with deep pockets to buy their way out of jail while less wealthy individuals accused of the same crimes sit in jail for longer.

Going deeper, Dupree says his office has worked with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit that supports ending mass incarceration, to create an equity justice system.

“Forty-three percent of the people we have sent to prison in this office from 2014 all the way up until now have been black folks,” he says. “Black people make up 23% of the population in Wyandotte County. How is it then that 43% are the ones who have been prosecuted? There’s a problem.”

Bryant, his opponent, has worked for 15 years in prosecutors’ offices, including her latest role as the trial team leader of violent crimes across the state line in Missouri. She’d like to see some immediate changes. 

For starters, she says that community-led violence reduction models have helped other communities by listening to residents to hear what they want to see happen instead of being told. 

“I work right now in a progressive prosecutor’s office,” she says. “It’s really opened my eyes of how we can work.” 

She wants to see day-to-day changes in the cash bond system so low-level offenders without rich families aren’t sitting in jail waiting for bail. The judges are largely responsible for bail, but she argues that prosecutors can’t wash their hands of it. In Jackson County, she goes a step further to ensure the poor aren’t disproportionately affected. She offers a background sheet to judges that outlines the pros and cons for bail. It includes the defendant’s criminal history and flight risk that include any previous failures to appear. 

Some of the problems in Wyandotte County are common elsewhere. But she says that shouldn’t be a reason to back away from it.

“Frankly, Wyandotte County has been slow to move forward,” she says, pointing out that changes could have been made more than a decade ago.

Bryant also wants the DA’s office to focus on violent crimes and work to properly rehabilitate low-level offenders. The homicide rate is up this year, she says. It means everyone needs to look at their role, including the prosecutor’s office.

Kristiane Bryant is running for Wyandotte County DA.

Kristiane Bryant, Mark Dupree’s challenger, says tensions between prosecutors and the police are inhibiting the pursuit of justice. But critics question whether she’d challenge the status quo enough as Wyandotte County District Attorney.

Holding everyone accountable?

Bryant knows her election bid is shadowed at times by former Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome A. Gorman’s tenure. It’s unfair and wrong, she says.

Former Mayor Mark Holland points out that Bryant worked in the previous office when they declined to charge an entire group of SWAT team police officers who were caught allegedly stealing on video in an undercover sting operation.

“The video is so appalling,” he says, angrily wondering out loud what the prosecutor would have done if he had had that kind of video on a Black defendant. 

Holland also wonders why the previous administration never investigated former Kansas City, Kansas Police Detective Roger Golubski, who has been accused of sexually exploiting poor women of color for decades. The assaults, victims reported, often took place at the police station where they were released after cooperating with his sexual demands. It includes the mother of McIntyre, who says she eventually moved and changed her phone number to escape Golubski’s obsession. Years later Golubski arrested her son and he was falsely imprisoned for a double homicide for 23 years before being exonerated.

“All of that was brushed under the table, and how is that kind of crime brushed under the table? Why has it never been investigated,” Holland says. “There’s another example of violence against Black people.” 

Bryant is well aware that she is being tied to the old guard by her critics. It’s unfair she says, especially given that when she moved to KCK in 2007 she was hardly in charge. 

“It would have been impossible for someone in my position as a woman, as a younger woman, to even think about running for district attorney. So I think our community has changed. The mindset has changed drastically,” she says.

As for corruption, Bryant says her track record is crystal clear. She prosecuted several cases of public corruption while working for the attorney general’s office. One of her cases involved a former Marshall County attorney in Kansas who was charged with stealing from his church.

Bryant says she will prosecute anyone including public officials who fail to uphold the law. Critics argue she is backed by the police and that could cloud her judgement. She dismisses that idea saying she won’t be too intimidated or compromised to confront misconduct among the police or other public officials.

“I think this is a time when we need to hold everybody accountable.” 

Beyond that, she says that she knows how to turn up the heat without creating an intolerable environment. Right now, Bryant says that the tension is so high between law enforcement and the DA’s office that they don’t communicate beyond the bounds of the law. Clashes are fine, she says, but it hurts residents when there is no communication. 

 “I think if you’re doing your job as a prosecutor, there’s always going to be some tension there,” she says. “But there has to be open lines of communication.”

Bryant also faults Dupree for his management skills. She says he’s paying too little attention to victim advocacy, operating his office with too little transparency and not properly training the young assistants who prosecute many jury trials. 

Prosecutorial inconsistency – wherein defendants with similar charges and backgrounds end up with drastically different outcomes – is not good for democracy, Bryant argues. It’s exactly the type of inequity that activists are currently fighting to change, she says.

Police union officials did not return calls for this story. However they have bitterly criticized Dupree’s work on several occasions.

Some defense attorneys say the police have a right to be angry. They say several well-investigated cases have been dismissed or pleaded down because assistant DAs weren’t properly trained.

Falling through the cracks?

The public only sees the headlines for big cases, argues Michael C. Duma, a criminal defense attorney. Duma worked for Gorman, the former Wyandotte County DA, but quit a few years before Dupree was elected.

When Dupree first took office, Duma says he was excited to see changes that were past due. But the follow-through has been troubling.

“I was rooting for him and was hoping for great reform,” he says. “What I have seen is a lot of talk and no leadership for the younger attorneys who are letting a lot of these cases fall through the cracks.”

Duma regularly sees young assistant DAs that forget to subpoena witnesses, secure discovery and more.

“My personal perspective as an attorney who practices there every day and who represents a lot of criminal clients there is that the wheels are falling off in that office,” he says. “I continually see cases falling through the cracks. I see a profound lack of institutional knowledge that they lost when they fired all of their top employees when he took office.”

It should trouble Wyandotte Countians, defense attorneys say, given the uptick in violence. Overall crime is up by 12 percent and homicides increased by 180 percent this year, Interim Chief Michael York told Unified Government Commissioners during a July budget meeting. The entire metro area has experienced a record year for homicides.

“I have had cases with very dangerous child sex offenders who were let out on the street simply because the DA’s office forgot to subpoena their witnesses, and he was out about a month before they refiled and arrested them again,” Duma says. 

One of the most troubling examples, he says, came early this year when Nicholas Magee was acquitted on a double murder charge in the death of Jocelyn Ybarra and her unborn child. It happened even though a woman had pleaded guilty in the murder and became a witness for the prosecution. Police and Ybarra’s family were furious and bewildered when the deputy prosecutor didn’t call the lead detective. The jury acquitted Magee and issued a highly unusual, damning review of the prosecution’s work. The jury wrote that they were “deeply concerned” by the “violent, heinous act” and wanted to see justice served.

“Unfortunately, we have a duty under the law to when we look at the evidence provided, and we did not receive very much evidence. As taxpayers in Wyandotte County we would … like to see enough of our dollars spent to provide the evidence that perhaps could have been collected and was not provided,” the statement read. “And we would encourage whoever’s in power to make those decisions to put those resources forth so that we do have all the facts perhaps for this case or for others like it.”

Defense attorneys say it is representative of what they and judges have seen time and again.

“They felt sorry for the victims,” Duma says of the jury.

Defending the prosecutor

Dupree acknowledges that his office, like others, doesn’t win every case. But he says he and his staff are working to get the most violent offenders off the streets.

He’s not surprised to see Bryant’s former colleagues criticize his efforts. Change by its nature makes people uncomfortable, he says.

But he rejects efforts to blame the prosecutor’s office for increased crime. In 2018 and 2019, crime was down, he says.

Dupree says many of his critics aren’t considering how COVID-19 is destroying the poorest of the county’s residents. They aren’t listening to the community, he says.

“They have no place to go. They have no jobs. They have no sanctuary and no churches,” he says. 

Some domestic abuse victims have been told to call in reports, he says. That’s not possible when there’s not a safe place to speak.

While Dupree’s critics are becoming more vocal as the election approaches, supporters such as the Rev. Jimmie L. Banks, the pastor at Strangers Rest Baptist Church, continue to back him.

“In my community, the people are overwhelmingly supportive of the progressive actions that have been taken by DA Dupree. We see him doing things in our community that we’ve never gotten out of the district attorney’s office before,” he says. 

By community, Banks makes it clear that he means the African American community.

“He’s the first one ever that has had any continuous action to hold the police accountable for their actions,” he says. 

That’s bound to cause anger, he says. The previous administration sat by too long when a few corrupt officers made the entire department look bad.

“Those guys over time become the role models,” he says. “They quickly fall in line with the blue line of protection that often has racial boundaries attached to it.”

He points to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis as one example of how flawed the system can become. 

“The systemic part of it is three other policemen who had been trained stood and did nothing,” Banks says. “Acting alone, he (Derek Chauvin) couldn’t have done that. But the system protected him because none of them felt empowered to challenge what he was doing because the blue line punches back at you when you do something that they feel results in the punishment of one of their members. So it’s a problem in KCK, it’s a problem all over the nation, all over the world.” 

Banks has watched protests in Kansas City, Missouri, and across the country. It gives him deep pause to think about that type of response happening in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Floyd’s death has created a movement so powerful that he fears ignorance and failure to act could send community members to a boiling point.

“You know, unless there’s some dialogue and some measures taken that are substantive and that are long-standing, we’re going to have some problems in Kansas City, Kansas,” he says. “We’d rather sit down at the table of reason, identify the issue and get people working on them with measurable things that change what’s going on.”

It’s impossible to ignore Floyd’s death, he says, in the context of the district attorney’s race. For years, Banks says, people of color often felt unheard in Wyandotte County justice. 

“Since District Attorney Dupree has come in, he’s been more visible in our community,” he says.

It frustrates Banks, who points out that people of color struggle to get hired in high-paying government jobs like the district attorney’s office. Not having the right last name can automatically shut someone out of a job in Wyandotte County. 

“It almost suggests that the qualifications are genetic,” he says.

But as The Star writes in one of its editorials about Dupree, “a goal of social justice doesn’t explain repeated acquittals in violent cases, failures to enter items into evidence or problems with missing subpoenas and witnesses.”

“If his many critics are right, then what can be done? Outside of an election, not much, it appears,” The Star wrote. 

As the race winds down, some community members believe the storm is only beginning in Wyandotte County and across the country. What should justice look like in Wyandotte County?

It’s a question voters will begin answering, at least in part, when they vote in the district attorney’s race on Aug. 4.

The Journal is a civic issues magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center. Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.

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