Law experts and community activists question dispatch policy, law enforcement response
By Noah Taborda - December 13, 2020
TOPEKA — Dispatch call logs indicate a Topeka woman has made more than a dozen 911 calls in the past two years — several targeting people of color — the most recent of which culminated with a police officer handcuffing a Black, 14-year-old boy with autism and roughly forcing him to the ground for having his dog off-leash.
Supporters of the child said the Topeka Police Department allowed Cynthia Meade, a resident of East Topeka, to repeatedly “weaponize” officers against minorities. Records obtained by Kansas Reflector from the Shawnee County Emergency Communications Center support those assertions.
Between Jan. 29, 2019, and Sept. 19, 2020, Meade made 13 separate reports to Shawnee County dispatch. The subject of each call ranges from a domestic dispute near her front yard to neighborhood dogs on the loose, but most concerning is a pattern of calls targeting minority community members.
On Feb. 3, 2019, Meade reported a Hispanic man breaking into a boarded-up house, although the police did not find anyone when they arrived. She made a similar report six months later, although this time police determined the Hispanic man was the owner of the property and renovating the building.
Three days before the incident involving the 14-year-old boy, Meade called dispatch regarding three preteens — described in the report as two Hispanic girls and one Hispanic boy — and their Pitbull. The preteens in question were the boy and his girlfriend, both of whom are black, an activist supporting the boy confirmed.
Meade told the dispatcher the girl began taunting her, and racial epithets were exchanged.
Records obtained by Kansas Reflector show Cynthia Meade made 13 calls to Shawnee County Dispatch, including five directed at minorities. Meade is accused of “weaponizing” police against minorities in the neighborhood. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Meade claimed police never talked to the suspects and demanded another officer be sent to handle the situation. When the second officer arrived, the report indicates, the first respondent did indeed speak with the three children, contrary to Meade’s claims.
Prejudiced and targeted reports like these can create an unsafe and uneasy community, legal experts and community activists said. Although Meade’s actions are unacceptable, they said the onus still falls on the police department to properly respond and de-escalate, not increase, distrust within the community.
Kansas Reflector offered Meade the opportunity to comment on the matter, but she declined.
When a Kansas Reflector reporter went to her house for comment, one of what appeared to be three dogs jumped at the reporter as Meade opened the door. The reporter reached down to defend himself, and Meade accused him of attempting to enter her home.
Meade chose not to offer any explanation for her calls and demanded the reporter leave her property immediately before going back inside her home.
Lauren Bonds, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said repeated calls to dispatch can lead to the over-policing of certain communities. This, in turn, saps municipal resources away from legitimate public needs.
It’s a story Bonds has heard too many times.
“So many of the high-profile killings of Black people involved law enforcement encounters initiated by a baseless call from private businesses or individuals,” Bonds said. “Because Black and brown people are disproportionately subjected to force and violence when they have encounters with the police, these calls create a risk to the physical safety and lives of people of color.”
Currently, dispatch policy is to assume all calls are valid, said Melanie Berger, a spokeswoman for Shawnee County dispatch. She said the number of calls from an individual is only recorded for informational purposes during the duration of a dispatcher’s shift.
“If somebody has called a couple of times over a month or two a dispatcher may not know that we’ve gotten several calls,” Berger said. “Our dispatchers are very close to the public, so they might be privy to it depending on if they took that call from the person who’s called them several times. It just depends.”
Once the dispatcher fields the initial report, the information is relayed to the appropriate service, be it the police, fire department, an ambulance or a variety of other services.
In Meade’s case, this means there was no log available to the dispatcher indicating she had this history. As a result, TPD would not have been informed of Meade’s track record, Berger said.
Bonds said this policy is insufficient. While she agreed dispatch should be responsive and receptive to all calls, she argued they should use all resources at their disposal by creating a more thorough call log.
Most concerning to Bonds was not the caller or dispatch policy, but the manner in which the police department responded to the reports involving children.
During the Sept. 19 incident involving the 14-year-old boy, officer David Ziegler cursed at the child, pepper-sprayed the child’s dog and threw the child to the ground, breaking the child’s wrist. Body camera footage showed the officer yelling profanities at the child, like telling him to take his “god damn dog home.”
After an investigation into the officer’s actions, Edward Collazo, the city’s independent police auditor, determined Ziegler abided by department policy but used “concerning” judgment when he confronted the boy and his emotional support dog, Bella, a 6-year-old thigh-high American terrier. Collazo concluded the officer was justified in using force because the boy resisted arrest and the officer perceived the dog and bystanders to be a threat.
“Law enforcement have discretion in how they respond to reports of criminal activity and requests for assistance. The woman’s 911 call about a kid with an off-leash dog should not have logically ended up with a child being thrown on the ground and in handcuffs,” Bonds said. “It is the city’s response — having police be the agency that responds to a call like that in the first place and then having officers on its force that are not equipped to handle an encounter like this with a child without getting violent.”
Solutions to the issue begin with better use of community resources and open dialogue, said John Nave, executive vice president of the Kansas State AFL-CIO and a former Topeka councilman. He said this sort of situation warrants immediate action.
“At some point in time in the neighborhood, they need to have a community resource officer come sit down to find out what her expectations of the neighborhood are since apparently she’s had a bad experience and is therefore attacking everybody,” Nave said.
In addition to his work with the AFL-CIO, Nave serves on the governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. He said improved community engagement by law enforcement is among topics regularly discussed during committee meetings.
Nave suggested an expanded call log may aid law enforcement in improving the community, rather than just policing it, by flagging the caller before any issues arise.
He also recommended more thorough use of Neighborhood Improvement Associations, or NIAs. In Topeka, 21 NIAs cover about half of the city working to improve everything from crime to education to food insecurity in their neighborhoods.
“That’s what we’re talking about across the city and even across the state is those new efforts where the City Council, police departments, schools, NIAs are sitting down and talking,” Nave said. “That’s what it’s going to take to make that better.”
From the Kansas Reflector