KS: Northland prosecutors urge Kansas City police to keep sending them small drug cases

Prosecutors in Platte and Clay counties have urged Kansas City police to keep sending them drug cases to prosecute, even if they are low-level arrests.

In a joint letter Wednesday, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd and Clay County Prosecutor Daniel White asked police not to make any policy change that would restrict drug cases from being referred to their offices.

Their request came after Jackson County Jean Peters Baker wrote to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners earlier this month asking the police department to stop sending her office hundreds of low-level drug crimes and instead refocus their efforts on the city’s “epidemic of violence.”

Baker’s letter informed police that her office has created more narrow guidelines for drug cases, and prosecutors will charge drug crimes only when the defendant poses a violent threat to the public.

Zahnd and White say illegal drugs fuel violent crime in communities north of the Missouri River. They say homicides are tied to sale and distribution of illegal drugs.

“For this reason, to us, it only makes sense to do everything we can to intervene before violence occurs, not only after,” the letter said. “Therefore, we ask that KCPD continue to refer drug cases to our offices regardless of whether individual cases have a discernible connection to violence.”

The Northland prosecutors say early intervention would allow their offices to assist nonviolent offenders to get help through county drug treatment courts, diversion programs and other efforts.

In her letter to Kansas City police, Baker said her office concluded that in 2019, about 25% of drug cases within four years had nexus to violence, when considering factors such as gun crimes or physical violence. That meant roughly 75% had “no discernible connection” to violence.

Each year, KCPD refers more than 1,400 felony drug cases to Jackson County prosecutors.

An analysis showed that while Black people make up 39% of the population, they accounted for 54% of drug suspects referred for charges by the police department from 2017 to September 2020 in Jackson County.

White residents, on the other hand, were referred for charges in 42% of drug cases, while making up 48% of the population, she said.

Baker noted the department’s current drug enforcement strategy made communities less safe and less willing to cooperate with authorities because of a lack of trust. Many drug possession cases often begin with a traffic violation or a minor crime.

In their letter, Zahnd and White said they were not involved in the discussions that Baker had with KCPD.

Zahnd and White said they are willing to discuss this further with the police board.

“Wherever KCPD lands on this issue, we are unwilling to create a system that would substitute an individual prosecutor’s feelings for the laws of this state, decimate Drug Treatment Courts, and, most importantly, undermine the safety of our community,” they said.

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