- Associated Press - Friday, July 3, 2020

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - For Brandon Johnson, the journey to leading the Kansas board that regulates police officers began 15 years ago, with his face to the ground on a Wichita street and an officer’s knee in his back.

Johnson, an African-American Wichita City Council member, said his activism career began with a misdemeanor arrest for failure to disperse while objecting to an instance of police excessive force he witnessed during the 2005 River Festival in Wichita.

Last week, Gov. Laura Kelly named Johnson, a longtime police reform advocate, to chair the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, or CPOST, which grants and revokes the professional certifications of officers and also determines the basic training required to become an officer.

The appointment comes as Kelly has promised to promote racial justice amid nationwide calls for an overhaul in the relationship between Black Americans and law enforcement, according to The Wichita Eagle. Communities of color don’t have the luxury of time for leaders to tackle problems, she has said.

Johnson replaces John Whitmer, a local radio host and former Republican state lawmaker whose term is ending. Kelly said Johnson has spent his career advocating for his community and called him a “symbol of empowerment for many.”

“I have no doubt his appointment will be a step toward creating a more equitable and just system, while promoting public safety and trust,” the governor said in a statement.

Elected in 2017, Johnson has stressed the need for law enforcement and the community to be “intricately connected” and attended demonstrations after Minnesota man George Floyd was killed in May when a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

Before Johnson was elected as a council member, he co-founded and ran CORE, Community Operations Recovery Empowerment. One of CORE’s major priorities was working with police and the courts to try to keep young people, especially African-Americans, from getting ensnared in the system.

He has been a steadfast supporter of Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay’s ongoing outreach efforts in Wichita’s Black community. And he favors a package of reforms the chief announced last week Thursday, including a ban on chokeholds and knee-holds on handcuffed suspects.

Johnson also served for 10 years on the Kansas Advisory Board for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Johnson said his interest in community activism started with his own arrest at age 19, when he was punched, wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and jailed for objecting to officers’ abuse of a young man at Douglas and Waco after a Riverfest concert.

“Excessive force was being used on him,” Johnson said. “He had knees in his back and was crying for his mother. I saw a supervisor who was Black and kind of yelled at the supervisor like, ‘Hey, this is wrong, he doesn’t need to do all that.’”

Johnson said the supervisor initially ignored him and when he persisted, the supervisor told him “If I didn’t shut up, it would happen to me.”

“So I shut up for a little bit, (then) saw another young man walking by, threw up a peace sign,” Johnson said. “Some officer said that was a gang sign and they grabbed him. It was pretty forceful, pushed him up against the back of this news van.”

When the van started moving backwards, he yelled at the supervisor again using what he concedes was “colorful language.”

The supervisor “came and punched me in the mouth and some other officers came and subdued me,” Johnson said. “They tried to Mace me and hit one of my friends because I moved out of the way. But just like the young man I was talking about I did end up face-down on the street …and got sent over to the county jail. Spent six or seven hours and got out that morning.”

Johnson pleaded no contest to loitering and blocking a sidewalk and paid $75 in court costs, but no fine, according to Wichita Municipal Court records.

He said for about the next year, “I did not like law enforcement in any way because I thought that was unjust.”

Johnson said “three officers than I knew and trusted” helped him turn that anger and frustration in a better direction.

“They kind of challenged me to do something about it in a positive way, don’t just hate law enforcement … if you want to do something, get policies changed and that sparked my activist career,” he said

Johnson joins a 12-member CPOST that is almost entirely comprised of law enforcement officials, under state law. One member of the public serves as the chairperson. Johnson will be the second Black member, after Kansas Highway Patrol Superintendent Herman Jones. No women currently serve on the board.

“He will bring an important perspective to CPOST with his notable experience facilitating communication between law enforcement and Wichita residents,” Kelly said.

Whitmer, the outgoing chairman, said he thinks Kelly made the wrong choice given Johnson’s support for police reforms demanded in Black Lives Matter protests.

“I would not have chosen someone who seems to be supportive of the ‘defund the police’ and I question whether or not Brandon is capable of being unbiased when it comes to law enforcement, but you know, hopefully he’ll prove me wrong,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer predicted Johnson would have an “adversarial” relationship with law enforcement.

In response to Whitmer’s comments, Johnson said he thinks most law enforcement officers will like his tenure better than Whitmer’s.

He criticized Whitmer for urging residents not to follow the recent stay-at-home and mass gathering restrictions put in place to fight the spread of coronavirus COVID-19.

“As the chairman of CPOST, he (Whitmer) was also advocating people defy lawful orders, which is not something that you want the chairman of CPOST to do,” Johnson said. “If you’re supporting law enforcement, you know, their job is to enforce the law. You shouldn’t be out encouraging people to defy the law and he’s done that.”

Johnson also rejected Whitmer’s suggestion that he holds an anti-police bias. At CORE, he organized community gatherings to bring police and Black community residents together to talk out their issues.

“If you’re anti-law enforcement, you don’t advocate for body cameras that also protect law enforcement as well as the community,” he said.

Rep. John Carmichael, a previous CPOST chair, said it was time for someone new to helm CPOST. Having a chair who comes from a community background will help shift the emphasis “from a world where law enforcement was a paramilitary organization to instead become a profession.”

“And while we’re making progress,” Carmichael said, “I think the new chair will be well-positioned to help make that change, to reduce the emphasis on uniforms, badges and guns and instead develop a professional cadre of law enforcement for the 21st century.”

Each year, the board revokes and suspends the certifications of dozens of officers, which in many cases effectively ends their Kansas careers. The cases revolve around a variety of misconduct, from abuse of power to domestic violence.

While the board often works in relative obscurity, its decisions sometimes make headlines. On Jan. 9, for instance, the board revoked the certification of Casey Lee Willis, a former Wichita officer who was accused of trying to rape his fiance before she stabbed him.

The board also sets a tone for police across the state by approving the basic training that officers must receive.

“I think council member Johnson does have his work cut out for him,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said it’s difficult to serve as the only “civilian” on the board. It’s easy to allow yourself to be co-opted when you’re on a board made up of people who are experts in their field, he said.

As CPOST chairman, Johnson said he won’t hesitate to bring up police abuse issues, but it wouldn’t compromise his ability to handle the job in an evenhanded manner.

“I just seek the truth and want to make sure justice happens,” he said. “And if law enforcement’s in the right, we’ll support them and if they’re in the wrong, we won’t. It’s that simple for me.”

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