WPD interim chief, city leaders, DA address racist messages between officers, deputies

Interim Wichita Police Department Chief Moore said higher-level authorities were notified last year after the department learned about the messages.
Published: Mar. 22, 2022 at 3:47 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Acting Wichita Police Department Chief Lem Moore, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter and Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple were among community leaders speaking up Tuesday to address an investigation into a text message group in which Sedgwick County Sheriff’s deputies and WPD officers shared messages “that contained texts with sexist, homophobic and/or racist content.”

The investigation came to light earlier this month when the Citizens Review Board met on March 10.

According to the agenda for that meeting, the messages were discovered while the Wichita Police Department was investigating allegations of domestic violence involving a Sedgwick County Sheriff’s deputy. The deputy’s cell phone was seized and downloaded as part of a search warrant on April 8, 2021. That’s when it was discovered WPD officers and deputies shared text messages and pictures described as “unbecoming of an officer.” The details weren’t made public until messages were leaked to the Wichita Eagle.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Wichita City Council headed into a closed-door session to discuss how to respond to inappropriate messages shared by WPD officers.

“We should not be tolerating this type of behavior from any employees in our city,” Whipple said. “This is not the values of our city.”

In a video response to the investigation in which he wasn’t available for questions from the media, Easter laid out what his department did in response to the reported messages. Easter said the sheriff’s office does not usually speak on personnel issues, but believes it needed to inform the public.

“There have been former employees here that created very distasteful memes and/or shared texts,” Easter said. “We received information from WPD in May of 2021 that there were some highly racially insensitive memes, texts, homophobic memes and women-degrading memes that were shared by three of our employees. We called for an executive staff meeting between myself, colonels, and our attorney where we viewed the material and immediately started the process of making notification to those three employees that we would suspend them.”

Easter said the now former deputy who was on suspension for domestic violence resigned the next day. As the investigation continued, he said two other sheriff’s office employees involved retired before the investigation concluded.

“Some folks may not like the face we didn’t put this out in September 2021. However, we are bound by employment law and didn’t feel we could provide specific information into what occurred,” Easter said.

Also on Tuesday, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett issued the following statement to Eyewitness News regarding the investigation.

“In May of 2021, Sheriff (Jeff) Easter told me of the existence of text exchanges that Spring involving three employees of the sheriff’s department that contained texts with sexist, homophobic and/or racist content. That same day, I instructed staff in the Office of the District Attorney to identify in our records management system of any case in which one of those three deputies was listed as an endorsed witness. My office then reviewed all active/pending cases involving the three deputies to determine the role they may have played. We dismissed approximately 50 pending traffic tickets and 10 pending nonviolent criminal cases as a result of our review. In any cases that we intended to proceed with prosecution, I personally notified defense counsel. We then hired two retired judges to assist in the review of over 120 criminal cases that had already been resolved in which one of the three deputies had been an endorsed witness to determine the role if any one or more of the deputies may have had in the case so that appropriate notifications could be made.

On March 8, 2022 I was told by the interim Chief that a racist meme had been sent by a police officer with the Wichita Police Department to other members of the department. This information had come to light during the same investigation that uncovered the texts sent between the three sheriff’s deputies. I requested a meeting—now scheduled tomorrow, March 23, 2022—with the department to obtain details of that investigation. Once I have details, I will initiate the same process that was utilized last spring and summer in the cases involving the three sheriff’s deputies: we will review any pending cases in which the officer (or officers) are endorsed; make notifications to counsel or dismiss cases depending on the involvement of the officer(s) in that pending case; then move on to older cases that are already resolved to conduct the same inquiry.”

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton’s office is also investigating several WPD officers in connection with the text group. Layton laid out steps his office is taking, which includes the investigation underway and a third-party review. While the WPD took disciplinary steps, Layton said he wasn’t made aware until the Citizens Review Board began looking into the issue. But former WPD Chief Gordon Ramsay said he did notify Layton when the incident happened last spring.

“It did not reach our office until very late in the process. It’s hard for me to be transparent when I don’t have the information,” Layton said.

Moore said higher-level authorities were notified last year after the department learned about the messages.

“The information was immediately taken to the FBI in July and handed over to the FBI,” Moore said. “In my research, this is what I’m finding out now. The FBI then sent it to the corruption department in Kansas City and it was reviewed there. And the same documents the [Citizens Review Board] is reviewing now, were reviewed by the DOJ.”

The Wichita City Council has asked Layton’s office to expediate this process.

“This stuff does not get shoved under the rug. This will not just be today’s story and ten tomorrow we forget about it,” Whipple said. “We’re going to address this. I’m not only angry about this, but also saddened.”

Layton said some of the officers involved no longer work for the Wichita Police Department or are in different capacities.

Whipple said he and the council are making this a top priority.

“This is going to be ongoing,” he said. “This isn’t something you fix in a day or in one meeting, but setting out the expectation, making sure that we stay on top.”

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