Internal affairs investigators at the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office closed 28 misconduct allegations in 2021. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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A clogged toilet. Gossip. A race-based traffic stop. Excessive force.

These are some of the nearly 500 complaints the internal affairs bureaus at the Wichita Police Department and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office closed in 2021. In about a third of the cases, the agencies sustained the complaints, according to an analysis by The Wichita Beacon.

Wichita police closed 471 complaints, ranging from rude conduct, gossip and unnecessary force to conduct unbecoming. In 2021, the most common complaint was about procedural violations, according to data provided by the agency and reviewed by The Beacon.

For the sheriff’s office, the 28 complaints sent to internal affairs investigators included an “unbecoming” Facebook post made by a deputy  and using unnecessary force while escorting an incarcerated person.  More than half the complaints received — 15 — were about alleged violations of the deputy code of conduct, according to information obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request.

Jay Fowler, chair of the Citizen’s Review Board, said the uptick in the number of complaints faced by Wichita police is not surprising. In 2020, the agency closed 393 complaints. In 2019, it was 359.

“Complaints go up when you have a heightened sensitivity to police issues,” Fowler said. “Looking at the complaints themselves, it shows that citizens are more aware of the behavior (of officers).”

How each agency tracks and handles misconduct complaints varies widely. For Wichita police, its Professional Standards Bureau investigates all misconduct complaints. 

At the sheriff’s office, the Professional Standards Unit investigates only the most serious allegations, while most of the complaints are addressed by supervisors across the department. 

Some cases closed by the police department in 2021 were filed prior to last year, including one outstanding complaint from 2019. Others filed in 2021 remained open into 2022.

Wichita police complaints by the numbers

Wichita police classify complaints into five categories: unnecessary force, excessive force, improper conduct, procedural violation or safety violation. Allegations are further divided into several subcategories, such as failure to show officer identification, discrimination, rude conduct or accidental firearm discharge.

Out of 471 cases, the Professional Standards Bureau determined that 265 were unfounded, not sustained or exonerated — about 56%. In 156 cases — about 33% — the complaints were sustained.

When the bureau launches an administrative investigation into a complaint, it has four options for closing it, according to WPD’s policy manual:

  • Unfounded: Allegations are false, not factual.
  • Exonerated: The incident occurred, but was lawful and proper. 
  • Not sustained: Insufficient evidence exists to prove or disprove the allegation.
  • Sustained: The allegation is true, supported by sufficient evidence.

According to the data received, some 50 cases were closed with other determinations, including cleared by body or dash cam, educational training, no violation or termination. In two cases, employees resigned while a case was being investigated. 

In 2021, Wichita police closed nine allegations of excessive force and 21 complaints of unnecessary force. There were over 100 complaining of improper conduct, according to data reviewed by The Beacon. 

The number of complaints includes those filed internally by members of the department and external ones from the public.

Fowler said it’s important to look at the substance of the complaints rather than the overall number of misconduct allegations. 

“What I want to do is look at the components of the numbers — rude conduct, failure to comply with policy — those tend to be high frequency,” Fowler said. “You need to see what the actions are to make that judgment.” 

The Wichita Police Department did not respond to repeated requests by The Beacon for comment about the complaints.

Snapshot of sheriff’s office complaints

The sheriff’s office closed 143 complaints in 2021. But just a fraction of those — 28 — were investigated by the agency’s Professional Standards Unit, according to data reviewed by The Beacon. The unit reviews the most serious allegations, including criminal misconduct, civil rights violations and use of force, according to spokesperson Lt. Benjamin Blick, the public information officer for the sheriff’s office. 

“Certain investigations are routed to PSU based solely on the nature of the complaints and others are assigned at the discretion of the Sheriff,” Blick wrote in an email to The Beacon. 

He also said use-of-force allegations may be investigated by a deputy’s supervisors and the results are reviewed by the PSU.

Lt. Tim Myers, commander of the internal affairs unit, said the number of complaints remains on par with previous years: 23 allegations in 2019 and 24 for 2020.

He said his office documents all complaints received from civilians when they directly call the Professional Standards Unit. 

“If somebody called and said that the deputy was rude to them, and during our investigation, we find out that the deputy wasn’t actually rude, but they’re just upset because they received a citation,” Myers said, “we still log that.”

The dispositions of those complaints vary year to year, but are investigated fully within internal affairs, according to Myers. He said a typical investigation includes interviews and reviews of vehicle and body-worn cameras. 

The PSU does not categorize the substance of each complaint as WPD’s internal investigation bureau does. Instead, records only reflect the determination of each allegation of misconduct: unfounded, not sustained, sustained, sustained in part, inconclusive or closed. 

The sheriff’s office closes complaints with one of five determinations:

  • Unfounded: Either the allegation is  demonstrably false or there is no credible evidence to support it.
  • Not sustained: The incident occurred, but the action was lawful and consistent with agency policy.
  • Sustained: The allegation is true. The action of the agency or the employee was inconsistent with the agency policy. 
  • Sustained in part: Parts of the allegations are true.
  • Inconclusive: There is insufficient proof to confirm or refute the allegations.

Public access to misconduct allegations

The 13-member Citizen’s Review Board, created in 2017, works with WPD to develop policies and reviews complaints of misconduct after they are closed.

Currently, the board can only review use-of-force or misconduct complaints after the police department’s Professional Standards Bureau determines them as unfounded or sustained. A decision to review comes at the request of the police chief or a citizen involved in the claim. 

The board remains barred from publicizing its findings — it can only announce whether it supports or opposes the decision of the Professional Standards Bureau.

The city is exploring ways to change how the board operates, but the Fraternal Order of Police’s contract mandates that all police disciplinary records remain confidential.

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Lugli was a community watchdog reporter at The Wichita Beacon. She was a Report for America corps member.