Grieving mothers, frustrated community members and young men who felt they had been profiled by Topeka police turned out Wednesday with a unified message that the city is failing its citizens.
Organizer Rose Welch said 161 people gathered Wednesday evening for a public forum at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library to express their frustration with city leadership, particularly the Topeka Police Department and its treatment of young black men. More than a dozen speakers expressed their frustration at the event attended by several city officials.
The forum comes a few months after two police officers shot Dominique White in East Topeka, sparking outrage from members of the Topeka community and spurring protests and calls for transparency. Prosecutors have not decided whether they’ll press charges against the officers.
“For 84 days now, we have had to endure the agony of losing a son, a father, brother and cousin,” said White’s stepfather, Brock Wynne.
Wynne said he had never experienced so many negative online comments as he has since his son’s death in September.
“I mean, even as far as telling the family, wanting the family, ‘I just wish this family would go away.’ Why should we go away? As a family, why should we have to go away — because we are seeking some justice and want some transparency for our son?” Wynne said.
Since the shooting in September, White’s family, the attorney and community members have called for the release of footage from officers’ body-worn cameras. White’s father, Kelly White, was able to view that footage Friday after getting legal status as special administrator of his son’s estate.
“We still challenge Topeka to show up to this tragedy as a community and be willing to examine how Dominique’s death will hopefully be a catalyst for real change in this city,” Wynne said. “We will continue to push for transparency from our local law enforcement departments and officials.”
Under Kansas law, body camera footage is not required to be released under an open records request.
Kansas state Rep. John Alcala, of Topeka, criticized the lack of transparency in body camera footage.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right,” Alcala said.
City officials were not able to speak at the forum, which prioritized citizens’ comments, but Mayor-elect Michelle De La Isla said in an interview she hoped the city could discuss how to move forward following Tuesday’s city council meeting.
“Some of the comments that were made yesterday were pretty powerful in the sense of how do we enhance our community policing strategies?” De La Isla said.
“How do we reach out rather than just having the Coffee With a Cop?
“What other programs can we be doing so that we can start bridging that gap of communication.”
Wynne was joined by fellow parents who have lost children to homicide and young men who said they had been harassed by police. Marty Hillard said he was once stopped by police after someone reported a prowler in their lawn.
“There were a total of five officers, four police vehicles and myself,” Hillard said. “I was 10 years old.”
Hillard said that was the first time he felt he was being viewed differently.
Mothers of slain sons urged audience members to come together and not pass judgment on victims of violence. Angela Lee is a member of Mothers of Murdered Sons. Her son, Justice Mitchell, was killed this summer during a botched drug deal.
“My son was the No. 16 murder in Topeka this year,” Lee said. “My son, Justice Mitchell, was an up-and-coming football student athlete, enrolled in college, ready to start his future on June 26 when he lost his life.”
Lee said people couldn’t understand how she felt until they experienced such a loss.
Leslie Vetaw knows that loss. She founded Mothers of Murdered Sons, or MOMS.
Vetaw’s son, Kenneth Leray Vetaw, was killed late this summer.
“This city needs help,” Vetaw said.
Vetaw said she has not been able to get communication and information from the Topeka police detective investigating her son’s killing, but she would not give up.
“You will get tired of seeing her because I’m never going to get tired of getting up in your faces,” Vetaw said.