TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ Republican attorney general told a racial justice commission two years ago that racial bias “obviously” exists in law enforcement, but he said Tuesday that he wasn’t saying systemic racism exists and stood by campaign attacks on the state’s Democratic governor for using that phrase.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt and fellow Republicans are portraying Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly as anti-police as Schmidt tries to unseat Kelly in the Nov. 8 election. George Floyd’s death in 2020 led Kelly to form a Commission on Racial Justice and Equity to examine policing, declaring as she did, “Systemic racism within law enforcement must end.”
Schmidt argues that saying systemic racism exists is calling law enforcement officers racist. His own comments that racial bias “obviously” exists in policing came during a Zoom meeting of the governor’s commission in October 2020. He told reporters Tuesday that when “a rare bad apple” commits misconduct, “There are mechanisms in place to deal with those individual problems.”
“They are two different things,” Schmidt said during an impromptu news conference following an event at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s forensics center in Topeka. “I certainly don’t argue that there is systemic racism in law enforcement, and I think the governor’s decision to appoint an entire separate commission to focus on that problem was ill-advised.”
Both parties expect the Kansas governor’s race to be close, and Schmidt has joined other Republican candidates across the U.S. in pivoting to crime as a big issue as he tries to win back independent and moderate Republican voters who backed Kelly in 2018. Part of his strategy is painting Kelly as antagonistic toward the police.
Kelly’s campaign responded Tuesday with the same statement it issued last week, saying Schmidt is engaged in “false smears” and that Kelly has delivered “historic investments” in law enforcement. Since Kelly took office in January 2019, spending on the prison system and Kansas Highway Patrol has grown by nearly 33%, though funding for the KBI under Schmidt’s control has remained flat.
Kelly formed her racial justice commission in June 2020 after the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis. In a column she wrote afterward, Kelly said she wanted the panel to recommend “meaningful and lasting change.”
“Racial inequality and injustice have been part of our nation’s history from the beginning,” Kelly wrote. “Communities of color do not have the luxury of time for leaders to ignore these issues any longer.”
The commission’s numerous recommendations in 2020 and 2021 included ensuring robust anti-bias training, prohibiting fired officers from working again in law enforcement, and revising local policies on the use of force. Despite Kelly’s call for lasting change, her administration did not push the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact them.
Schmidt said that although if he were governor, he would have condemned Floyd’s death and called on Minnesota to deal with officers’ conduct, he also would have condemned violence during protests over Floyd’s death and suggested that some leaders then were “elevating this issue in an inflammatory manner.”
During his Zoom presentation to Kelly’s racial justice commission in October 2020, Schmidt briefed members on the role of the attorney general’s office and the state Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training in reviewing allegations of racial bias against officers. CPOST certifies and disciplines law enforcement officers.
During the meeting, commission member Mark McCormick asked Schmidt, “To what degree do you think racial bias exists in our system here in the state?”
Schmidt replied: “You know, Mark, I mean, obviously, it does exist. It exists in human relations, and so it therefore exists in the subset of human relations that include law enforcement interactions with people.”
Schmidt added that he believes that the CPOST and individual law enforcement agencies take complaints of racial bias “quite seriously” and that “it’s not an also-ran consideration.”
He told reporters Tuesday that law enforcement officers “overwhelmingly are honorable” and that it’s a disservice to them for the governor to suggest that policing is “systemically racist.”
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