By Ron Sylvester, The Hutchinson News
Before Lauren Bonds became legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, then became interim director, before she went to law school and became a civil rights lawyer, she knew what discrimination was like in Hutchinson.
When she visited her hometown to speak at Law Day for the NAACP of Hutchinson, she was already aware of some of the problems residents are facing.
Bonds came back in a position to help her hometown, where people say they feel they don’t have legal redress when they face discrimination.
“So the ACLU is trying to act on issues that align with our organization mission, to be a source of advice and a resource for referrals,” Bonds told The News in an interview before her Law Day speech Friday.
Growing up in Hutchinson, she knows what it’s like to be stopped on Main Street for no other reason than driving while black.
She still hears people talking about it.
“I don’t know why I was pulled over,” Bonds said, repeating complaints she has heard from her fellow Hutchinson residents. “Or you know, ‘My kid in school had his locker searched for something that his white friend did, too, he wasn’t subject to the search or subject to the penalty.’ So these kind of situations are what we’ve been hearing from Hutch, and we’ve tried to provide as much advice as we can.”
Human Rights Commission
Hutchinson residents had been left without a human relations officer, a position created by a 1998 ordinance, since 2009. That year, the city had 336 complaints. The next year, it dropped to 20, then into single digits.
Officials have cited those numbers as a reason not to fund the position. Those holding positions of power in the city, who are white, say no complaints shows no need.
Residents of minority groups say that’s because there is no one to hear their complaints locally, and they must navigate a complex and lengthy process through the state.
Last month, the city filled the position of Human Relations Officer part-time with Datjaeda Moore. The City Council said it needs to assess the need before committing to the position full time.
Moore said she was encouraged by Bonds’ talk last week.
“I think she’s already done some important work and with her knowledge of the city, from growing up here and knowing the systems here and how they work, it will definitely be good to have her perspective,” Moore said. “We definitely want to talk and work together.”
Jeffery Hooper, hired as the police chief in October, has been trying to repair trust in the department, including replacing officers and commanders.
“The culture of departments is very important, and I think a chief has a lot of influence over that, so I think this is going to be optimistic,” Bonds said.
Hooper said that he wants to promote a culture in the department where all residents feel safe and protected.
“We will treat every resident and visitor of this community with the utmost respect and equality,” Hooper said. “If I hear that’s not happening, I will absolutely hold us as an agency responsible. If biases and prejudices are coming into play, we will deal with them.”
The ACLU can help be a resource, Bonds said, if only making sure people correctly file complaints. Sometimes, the public needs a lawyer to help them navigate a confusing legal system.
“The Attorney General’s office has statutory responsibility to investigate complaints of racial bias policing,” Bonds said. “I don’t think we’re making them do their job enough. We’re not making internal affairs do their job enough.”
Some may fear complaining against the police department will turn officers against them. But retaliation also is illegal.
“That’s a very valid fear and a very valid concern,” Bonds said. “I think that’s why it’s important to have legal resources to help you. I think retaliation is less likely to happen if you’re represented by even if not legal counsel, but you know, also just to have someone who can help push back when those kind of things happen, or at least put a spotlight on it.”
Hooper said that people should not be wary of filing complaints, and they will be taken seriously.
“If those complaints come before me, they will be investigated fully and the officers held responsible,” he said.
Bonds said the complaints she hears today resemble those she heard while growing up in Hutchinson. She wants to help change that, and now she’s in a position to help.
“It’s the same things that, frankly, my friends dealt with when I was growing up here 10 to 15 years ago,” Bonds said. “And it doesn’t seem like a lot changed, unfortunately.”
If you believe you’ve experienced discrimination in Hutchinson, here are some resources you can go to for help:
- City of Hutchinson: Datjaeda Moore, city human relations officer, 620-694-2608
- Hutchinson Police: Call 620-694-2816, email Chief Jeffrey Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or file a complaint for commendation online at Hutchgov.com
- ACLU of Kansas: request legal assistance by filling out an online form at aclukansas.org