City Hall has ‘blood on its hands’ in swatting death, attorney tells council
Wichita city government bears a large share of the blame for the death of an innocent man gunned down by police in a “swatting” hoax last month, a prominent civil rights attorney and congressional candidate told City Council members Tuesday.
Lawyer James Thompson, who has sued the city in previous police shootings, said Wichita has far too many such incidents for its size and it’s a result of poor police training, staffing and funding that puts overworked and nervous officers on the street.
“When they make mistakes, people die,” Thompson said. “That lays at your feet, so the blood of Andrew Finch is on your hands just as much as it is the shooting officer and the idiot from California who made the phone call.”
Thompson, a Democrat who lost a close race for Congress last year and is running again this year, is the most prominent Wichitan so far to step to the City Hall microphone with criticism of the Finch shooting.Finch, 28, was killed on the porch of his home on Dec. 28 by a police officer during an incident of “swatting” – a hoax designed to provoke a special weapons and tactics (or SWAT) team response to a nonexistent incident.
It apparently began with a dare spinning off a dispute over a $1.50 wager in an online game of Call of Duty. Finch wasn’t part of the game, but apparently, one of the gamers gave Finch’s address to the person who made the swatting call.
Critics have dominated the public comments at both council meetings since the shooting and say they’ll continue to rotate speakers to the podium until they get answers and action.
City Manager Robert Layton said he doesn’t have a direct response to the allegations made by Thompson and others, but did defend the city’s response in general terms.“We have a process we have to step through that involves a full investigation,” Layton said. “That investigation is not complete. The comments that people are making are in my mind somewhat premature but they have the right to share their concerns.”
Layton supervises Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. He said Ramsay has worked to address the issue of lethal force and will continue.
“He wants to continue to move us toward non-lethal means for dealing with issues,” Layton said. “Not only is he committed to doing that, but he’s committed to changing our policies and training to get there.”
Thompson told council members they’re responsible in Finch’s death “because you have the power to make sure this police department is properly trained and properly staffed and you have failed to do so.”
He was especially critical of the department’s “threat assessment model” that he said trains officers to imagine the worst-case scenario that might happen and act accordingly when interacting with citizens.
He said that training encourages officers to default to a lethal response, especially since Kansas has changed state law to allow anyone who can legally own a gun to carry it concealed in public without any background check or permit.“Every single cop in the city can imagine that somebody has a gun,” Thompson said.
He said officers need better training in non-lethal force and better leadership from the top.
“WPD shot and killed Andrew Finch,” Thompson said. “And while I respectfully assert that yes, that officer is responsible for this shooting, I also respectfully assert that it’s the city manager’s and the City Council’s fault for that shooting as well, because this council and the city manager and the leadership of the Wichita Police Department have known about the problems within this Police Department for years.”
Thompson said since 2012, 29 people have been shot and 15 killed by Wichita police.
“You may ask, is that statistically high?” he said. “Yes. It is very, very high.”
He also compared the city’s police shootings to Detroit and Chicago, two much larger cities with much higher crime rates.
In 2012, Wichita had 642 police officers and 27 homicides, including four fatal shootings by police.
In contrast, Detroit had more than 2,000 police officers and 386 homicides in 2012, but only three people killed by the police, Thompson said.
Chicago had nearly 12,000 police officers and 500 homicides, but only eight police shooting deaths that year, he said.
Thompson’s numbers were compiled from FBI uniform crime reporting statistics, court documents and reports from the Detroit Police Department and the Chicago Police Review Authority.
Council member Bryan Frye was sworn in as vice mayor on Tuesday and ran the meeting in the absence of Mayor Jeff Longwell, who was ill.
Frye said he’s withholding judgments on who’s at fault until the KBI finishes investigating and the district attorney decides whether charges are warranted against the officer who shot Finch.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions and I absolutely want those questions answered, just like everybody else on the council,” Frye said. “But we have to let the due process work.
“I wasn’t there that night, so I don’t know exactly everything that happened,” he added. “Yeah, it’s frustrating to not have any of those questions answered. The family deserves it, our citizens deserve it and our police force deserves it, but we have to let the process work.”Critics claim that process is so slanted toward exonerating and protecting officers involved in shootings – whose names are not released to the public – that they’re never held responsible. And they highly doubt the officer who shot Finch will be either.
Frye said he can’t speak to previous cases
“I just have to put my faith in the people we have doing it now,” he said.