A written request submitted Monday morning asked Topeka City Council members, Mayor Larry Wolgast and city manager Brent Trout to exercise their authority to call a special council meeting to address issues linked to the fatal Sept. 28 police shooting of Dominique White.
“Since that day, our community has become deeply divided; this homicide has rocked our community, caused civil unrest, bred fear of our police forces, and contempt for our elected leadership,” the letter said.
The city of Topeka issued a statement Monday evening with input from the city’s governing body, which consists of the nine council members and Wolgast, suggesting a public forum would be held but not saying if that would occur at a council meeting.
“The governing body has heard the requests for further community discussion and wholeheartedly agrees that public dialogue is essential,” the release said. “We have reached out to the Department of Justice for assistance in facilitating those efforts. We ask for your support and patience as the process unfolds.”
The statement, which Trout said the city had been working to prepare for some time, also left open the possibility that the city might release police body camera footage of the shooting and make public the names of the officers who shot White.
“If an officer or officers are charged or indicted, their names will become public,” the statement said. “If no charges are brought, the names may be released at the conclusion of an internal investigation.”
The body camera footage will be shown to an administrator of White’s estate, as is allowed by the Kansas Open Records Act.
“The body worn camera footage may be released once a determination is made that the camera footage is in the public interest and will not interfere with any prospective law enforcement action, criminal investigation or prosecution,” the statement said. “Members of the governing body have not viewed any criminal investigation records, including video from the body worn camera, as the governing body plays no role in criminal investigations.”
White was shot by two Topeka police officers near East Topeka’s Ripley Park. Topeka police said the officers fired after White, who had a gun and was fleeing, reached for his pocket. The Lawrence Police Department, which investigated the case, recently submitted its report to Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay’s office, which is deciding whether to take action.
White’s family and other community members have called for authorities to release video showing the shooting and the officers’ names.
City officials received a request for a public forum regarding the situation in a letter Monday from “Concerned Citizens of the City of Topeka.”
Listed at the bottom of the letter were the names of Martinez Hillard of council District 1, Oshara Meesha of District 3, Yasmari Rodriguez of District 4, Rose Welch of District 5, Brian Moore of District 5, the Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan of District 6, John and Tracy Metcalf of District 8, and RJ Dobbs of District 9.
A Topeka Capital-Journal reporter on Monday afternoon left messages with all 10 governing body members asking if they would support holding a special council meeting or other public forum.
Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz said, “I would support a public forum as long as it does not tarnish or hurt the investigation.”
Councilwoman Elaine Schwartz said she would support holding such a meeting, provided Wolgast decided to call one.
“I would support the mayor,” she said. “If the mayor decides to call it, I would be there.”
Councilwoman Karen Hiller said that given the legalities involved, she wasn’t sure there was anything more to discuss at this point about the specific issues concerning White’s death.
“Regarding a discussion of the police department and police practices, I am very favorable about having a public meeting, which I have said before and which I have advocated to the city manager,” Hiller said.
She said a request Trout made last week for public input about the police department and qualifications for the city’s next police chief, who he is in the process of hiring, “is an immediate opportunity that is perhaps a better opportunity for the public than a single meeting.”
Hiller encouraged the public to share thoughts with the city government. Residents may email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave input online at topeka.org/your-next-police-chief. Those who wish to talk publicly on the matter may speak at Tuesday’s 6 p.m. council meeting, Hiller said.
Trout said that while he didn’t think a council meeting would be the proper venue for a discussion about the situation, the city government was starting to explore the possibility of offering some type of public forum about it.
In a typed statement provided Monday, Oglesby-Dunegan said city leaders, officers and leadership at the police department need to be held accountable. She called for implementation of measures including a citizen’s review board and policies and practices that promote transparency and accountability.
“This community has been pretending that we are somehow different than the rest of America, and especially from a place like Ferguson, Mo.,” she said in the statement. “I don’t believe it.”
Welch, who said she recently moved to Topeka and became involved in the discussion about White’s death as a concerned citizen, delivered the letter seeking a special council meeting to City Hall about 10 a.m. Monday, leaving nine copies for council members at city clerk Brenda Younger’s office and one copy each with assistants for Wolgast and Trout. She said the letter was also being emailed to each recipient.
The letter delivered Monday sought a special council meeting, which according to Topeka city ordinance can be called by the city manager, the mayor or any four members of the council. It asked that such a meeting be scheduled on or before Dec. 19 to address White’s death and the effect it has had on the community.
Residents deserve a chance to speak about the lack of transparency they have seen in past months from the Topeka Police Department and to outline what steps they would prefer be taken, the letter said.