bennie thompson and liz cheney
Photo by Mandel Ngan at AFP

A chief of police candidate in Wichita a few years back said during the public interview process that an officer’s racism wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for employment. That response alarmed the Black community at the time — particularly because biased traffic stops around the country had recently escalated into shooting deaths — but nothing much came of it.

The question of what is or should be a disqualifying factor for police employment has taken on new urgency as the Jan. 6 commission uncovers more levels of criminality leading up to and taking place on that day. What are we to make of police officers who were among the white supremacists and seditionists storming the Capitol?

Should they be held to account just for their actions — which has been proved beyond doubt to be criminal — without regard for racist speech? Were they merely swept up in the moment, mimicking the language and actions of the president who summoned them there? (Recall, while still a private citizen living in his New York tower, Donald Trump claimed to have evidence proving that Barack Obama was ineligible to run for president because he wasn’t born in the United States. Birtherism, as it became known, was just the first of Trump’s numerous racist fictions unleashed for political gain.)

Or should they also be held to account for their words? Law enforcement officer salaries are paid through taxpayer funding. Does such speech demonstrate clear bias, a violation of their oath to serve and protect all members of the public equally?

Brandon Johnson, chairman of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, says actions of those storming the Capitol create a cut-and-dried case for firing. The words they used, he argues, also create such a case.

“Officers who traveled to the Capitol and took part in a direct attack on our democracy have broken their oath and because of the criminality of the insurrection should not be working in law enforcement,” he said.

“Officers who have stronger feelings of support for the disgusting rhetoric that the former president spewed regularly may have some biases that would potentially lead to biased negative treatment of members of those groups,” he added. “In my opinion, both racism and sexism should be dealbreakers in law enforcement due to the nature of their job of serving all of the public.”

Police clash with supporters of President Donald Trump during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Kent/Tennessee Lookout)

Johnson’s commission has authority to investigate officers accused of wrongdoing — as long as an individual submits a request focused on a specific officer. A Kansas Open Records Act request for vacation days taken on or around Jan. 6, 2021, might mark a great starting point for such an investigation.

But we shouldn’t stop there. All complaints against officers and any disciplinary action reports should be made public.

The Jan. 6 hearings have implicated Trump more deeply in the horrid events of that day that left one woman dead, numerous officers injured and offices looted.

Trump reportedly asked rioters to show up armed and then wanted metal detectors removed. This may have led to the death and injury of officers who fought valiantly defending the Capitol, while Trump watched from the White House for hours as staffers and his daughter begged him to intervene.

The former president earned wide support from militant, white nationalist groups for his racially incendiary rhetoric. It was here that Johnson expressed concern about officers perhaps compromising their ability to mete out justice fairly in non-white communities.

Trump famously said there were good people on both sides of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia where a Neo-Nazi sympathizer killed Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters.

Trump’s rallies have continued to draw throngs of Confederate battle flag wavers, fatigue-wearing militiamen and survivalists and others seemingly obsessed with the rapidly changing racial demographics of our nation.

The fact that many white officers identify with a man with these kinds of views is chilling to people from communities who already disproportionately bear the brunt of stops, searches and police use of force. There’s not a ton of difference between racist language and racist actions where officers are concerned.

Johnson said if any officer was found to have committed one of the specific statutory offenses, they could be disciplined by the commission with a suspended or revoked law enforcement certification, depending on the infraction and the severity of it.

Johnson is right. This needs scrutiny.

Ideally, police protect communities. But if we’re sealing police files and remain unwilling to weed out officers with histories of discrimination and violence, it’s Black and brown communities that will need protection from police.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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