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Fifteen men. One woman. No prosecutions.
Law enforcement personnel from the Wichita Police Department and Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office have shot and killed 19 people since District Attorney Marc Bennett took office in 2013. Bennett, citing Kansas law, has declined to file charges against officers in 16 of those fatalities.
In 15 cases, the officers were on duty; in one other, the shooting took place inside the home of an off-duty officer. Three other fatal shootings are under review by his office.
“Sometimes it’s because it was clear they were immune from prosecution. Sometimes, it was because we had insufficient evidence to overcome the immunity claim,” Bennett wrote in an email to The Wichita Beacon.
In declining to prosecute officers in deadly use-of-force cases, Bennett points to Kansas law — both statutes that provide immunity from prosecution for law enforcement officers and the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Only three states in the country have laws limiting immunity for police officers who kill. Kansas is not one of them.
State Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita, said the “Stand Your Ground” law in Kansas was adopted as an extension to the right to self-defense.
“Instead, these laws are being used — at least, by our district attorney — as a sword as an additional statutory right given for law enforcement to use deadly force,” he said. “And it is very, very concerning.”
Carmichael added that he didn’t support “Stand Your Ground” laws when they were first proposed and that the common law of self defense was sufficient in allowing people to protect their property or themselves.
Bennett’s record in cases involving officers who shoot and kill people and the state’s self-defense law have come under scrutiny since January after the prosecutor declined to file charges in the death of Cedric Lofton.
The teenager died in September two days after county corrections employees restrained him face-down until he became unresponsive in Sedgwick County’s Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center. A county task force is reviewing the facility where Lofton was restrained and the FBI is investigating his death.
In announcing his decision in the Lofton case, Bennett also pointed to 33 fatalities that did not involve law enforcement officers in which his office did not file charges based on the state’s self-defense laws.
At the same press conference, Bennett also said his office has charged 33 police and public safety officers with crimes ranging from DUI to kidnapping and aggravated sexual battery since he took office a decade ago.
In addition to criminal prosecutions, officers are also subject to getting their Kansas Law Enforcement Certification Officer revoked if the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training determines an officer broke policy standards.
But state Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, a Democrat from Lenexa, said lawmakers are overdue for a review of the “Stand Your Ground” law.
“No one should ever have a duty to retreat in their own home,” she said. “But, I do think we need to look at some sort of standard and reasonableness.”
“We don’t want people going out and seeking dangerous situations and starting the use of force that results in someone being killed,” Hoye added.
Bennett’s track record criticized
Since 2013, the year Bennett took office, on-duty Wichita police officers and sheriff’s deputies have killed 15 people, according to the district attorney’s office.
The fatalities range from Jared Woosypiti — who was killed in 2013 after a 32-hour standoff — to Paul Peraza, who was shot to death in 2020 after he robbed a bank.
Three other police killings in 2020 and 2021 — Jason Williams, Tyler Hodge and Jess Jackson — remain under investigation by Wichita police and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The cases will be turned over to the district attorney’s office once complete.
In two other cases — Horace Gwyn in 2013 and Caleb Douglas in 2016 — the men died after being shot by law enforcement. But the coroner ruled they died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Bennett reviewed Douglas’ case and concluded no criminal charges would be filed against the deputy who “exercised deadly force,” resulting in a single, nonfatal gunshot wound to Douglas’ shoulder.
Gwyn shot himself in the head at the same time as a sheriff’s deputy shot him in the upper back, according to media reports.
In most of the 15 police-involved fatalities, Bennett ends his review of the case with the same statement.
“Under Kansas law and the facts of the case, I conclude that no criminal charges will be filed against the officers and deputies,” Bennett said after a review of the death of Robert Sabater, who was killed by law enforcement in 2019.
Bennett’s track record on police fatalities has drawn criticism from local advocates.
“As a result of the lack of actions taken in regards to this case, and having a history of not prosecuting law enforcement, the community has lost faith in Marc Bennett as district attorney,” reads an open letter penned by activists with the Community Empowerment & Resilience Coalition, a grassroots organization.
LaWanda Deshazer, second vice president of Wichita’s NAACP branch, said Bennett’s record shows a need for a special prosecutor in cases when law enforcement officers kill civilians.
“I believe there is a conflict of interest,” she said in a message to The Wichita Beacon. “Over time friendships develop, which is natural, most of us make friends on the job. But there lies the conflict.”
Deshazer added that Bennett’s consistent use of self-defense or qualified immunity does not help any perception of perceived conflicts.
“Even with the CJ Lofton case, Bennett said no charges,” she said. “When the video was released we saw that there was no threat or at the very least, the threat was subdued. Several state legislators have publicly stated the law was not applied correctly.”
Bennett addressed calls to appoint a special prosecutor in the Lofton case in his January press release.
“I will concede that it would be easier for me to ask someone else to review this. But down the road, what justification would I have for not sending every difficult or unpopular decision to the (attorney general) or to some hand-picked appointee?” Bennett wrote.
“I was elected to handle the responsibilities of the District Attorney. I do everything I can to surround myself with people with skill, experience and above all, integrity. Making tough decisions is part of the job and not something to be farmed out,” he added.
“Once this work is complete, I will certainly be taking a deeper look at the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law regarding origin, noted use of case history, and its deployment across our community, both past and present,” he wrote in a Facebook message to The Beacon.
Hoye said it’s time for state lawmakers to take “a deep dive” into the state’s immunity laws.
“It’s time for a review of that law,” Hoye said. “I implore my leadership, especially in the Kansas House, to do a deep dive and take a look at the impact that this law has had on our public safety.”
Invoking ‘Stand Your Ground’
Bennett said the “Stand Your Ground” law can be invoked whenever a person says they acted in self-defense or when the facts of a case show that a person was acting in self-defense — whether or not the person themselves said so to police.
When a person’s “use of force” is in reaction to another’s allegedly threatening action, it forces attorneys to consider self-defense immunity.
It triggers questions such as whether a case has sufficient evidence to overcome the argument, who was the initial aggressor in a confrontation, and whether the accused provoked an attack just to be able to claim self-defense, according to Bennett.
“Was the victim of the accused person’s use of force the aggressor?” Bennett said. “In that sense, stand your ground/self-defense immunity is ‘invoked’ by the facts because we have to assess whether we can overcome a claim of immunity.”
In 2010, Kansas lawmakers approved a series of statutes addressing when the use of force can be legally justified and who the law can protect.
Hoye said that in 12 years, a number of tragedies were shielded from prosecution because of state law.
“(‘Stand Your Ground’) has prevented even a discussion of what is a reasonable use of force through the courts,” she said. “Frankly, I believe that there are people that have gotten away with murder because of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”
‘Everyone should be held accountable’
Hoye and Carmichael share mutual concerns about the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, referring to its frequent citation by Bennett as a shield for law enforcement.
“It gives law enforcement additional rights beyond the right of self defense,” Carmichael said. “I believe this is a perversion of the intent of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws.”
The state’s self-defense law should be scrutinized, but an extra push by constituents is necessary for lawmakers to make it a priority, according to Hoye.
“It doesn’t seem to me that there’s much urgency from our leadership. It’s something that people need to demand of us,” she said.
Alterations to state law are a delicate dance, according to Bennett. Attempts at reform could result in unintended consequences, such as totally repealing protections for self-defense.
As of March 8, no bills have been introduced in the state legislature to address the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Regardless, Deshazer said immunity for officers who kill needs to be reformed.
“When those laws are broken everyone should be held accountable,” she said. “No matter what your day job is.”