Three years after Kansas City cops shot and killed Ryan Stokes, a call for new police review

Three years ago Kansas City, Missouri, police officers went to the home of Ryan Stokes’ parents to tell them their 24-year-old son was dead.

A police officer, they said, had been forced to shoot Stokes in the chest when he refused to drop a gun during a standoff in a parking lot near 12th and McGee streets. The shooting occurred, they said, after two white men had accused Stokes, a black man who had no criminal record and worked in the family’s dry cleaning business, and his friends of stealing a cell phone while visiting the Power & Light District.

But Narene James, Stokes’ mother, soon learned that certain facts the police had given her and her family that morning were not true.

First, the funeral director reported that Stokes had actually been shot twice in the back, not in the chest, as police officials had said. Then she found out that police never had evidence that a cell phone was stolen.

Now, three years later, police have still not said why they told the family that Stokes had been shot in the chest, and the family is continuing to look for answers in other discrepancies in the police case, its attorney says. The family recently filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the police department.

Kansas City police apparently have no comment. A Pitch reporter called Sgt. Kari Thompson, the department spokeswoman, seeking an interview, but she did not return calls over several days.

Last month, 20 activist groups using the name “The Coalition for Ryan Stokes” sent letters to the Kansas City Police Board of Commissioners and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, demanding reforms. The coalition’s letter to the police asks that Stokes’ name be cleared of wrongdoing to correct, it says, “grave injustices,” and pushes for changes to policies that, the group says, could lessen the chances of police brutality.

The letter to Peters Baker asked her to conduct a thorough case review. Mike Mansur, the prosecutor’s spokesman, said last week that Peters Baker did not plan to conduct a case review because a use-of-force committee and a grand jury had declined the case already.

“They have painted Ryan as a criminal, which he is not,” the Rev. Vernon Percy Howard Jr., senior pastor of the St. Mark Union Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, recently told The Pitch. “The kind of character assassination or mistruth that has been formally entered into the [police] case file is horrifying and a grave injustice.

“We cannot sit back and say nothing,” Howard added.

The shooting occurred after an altercation near the Sprint Center when the white men reportedly accused Stokes’ friend of stealing a phone.

Police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd, according to police video and reports. Stokes’ friend asked him to retrieve his car from a nearby parking lot. Stokes can be seen in police video jogging along the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, the two white men told a police officer that their phone had been stolen by Stokes and his friend. The officer spotted Stokes and pursued him while calling in other officers. It’s unknown whether Stokes even knew police were chasing him at that point.

Officer William Thompson spotted Stokes, who by then was standing next to his friend’s car, according to police reports. Thompson later said he believed Stokes was holding a gun. Thompson fired three shots. Two hit Stokes in the back; the third went wild, causing a police officer to radio that officers needed to watch out for crossfire. No gun was found on Stokes. A gun found inside the car was legally owned by Stokes’ friend, who was the one initially accused of stealing the cell phone, according to police reports.

Police never found the cell phone, “as far as we know,” according to Cynthia Short, the family’s attorney.

Police have said the shooting was reasonable because a foot chase had been under way and Thompson believed that Stokes was holding a gun. A year after the shooting, the Kansas City police board gave Thompson a “Certificate of Commendation” for his involvement in the shooting.

The Coalition for Ryan Stokes is also asking that the city create a new Citizens Review Board, to consider complaints of law-enforcement abuse independently of the police department. The current board accepts complaints but turns them over to the police for investigation, a practice the coalition’s letter described as “ineffective, unjust, grossly inadequate, and an inherent conflict of interest.” All Kansas City police shootings, the coalition argues, should be investigated independently.

The letter also called for a “humane and safe” policy for foot pursuit that protects unarmed citizens; a “victim advocates team” to offer “truthful information” to those shot or forcefully apprehended by KC police; and financial support for Stokes’ 4-year-old daughter, Neriah.

“The account of the police shooting of Mr. Stokes, originally provided to the public by KCPD media coordinator Tye Grant, is inconsistent with the facts,” the letter said. “We insist that the truth be uncovered and the correct narrative be told.”

In the letter, dated August 3, the coalition asked the police department for a response within two weeks. No reply from the board has come yet; a police commissioner tells The Pitch that the department is working on an official response.

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