What if there’s no video? Family of unarmed man killed by KC police seeks answers
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What if there had been a public video?
Donnie Sanders’ family has been asking the question since March, when the 47-year-old man was fatally shot by a Kansas City police officer who believed he was armed.
The day after his death, the Kansas City Police Department announced Sanders was not carrying a weapon.
In recent weeks, Sanders’ family joined protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
They listened to the crowd chant Sanders’ name alongside those of other Black men killed by police in Kansas City: Ryan Stokes, Cameron Lamb and Terrance Bridges.
As they watch the names of officers involved in previous police shootings play out across headlines and listen to the most recent updates on attempts at indictments against other officers, they wonder if justice as they see it is possible.
“It’s kind of hard to feel any type of way right now when you seen everybody else got justice and we still stuck at square one,” said Sanders’ eldest sister, Youlanda Sanders, 49.
The families of Stokes and Lamb know the names of the officers who killed their loved ones.
On June 18, a Jackson County grand jury indicted Kansas City police detective Eric J. DeValkenaere, 41, in the December 2019 killing of Lamb, 26, who was shot while sitting in his pickup truck in his own backyard.
Stokes, 24, was unarmed when he was shot in the back by Officer William Thompson on July 29, 2013, in the Power & Light District after the officer said he thought he saw a gun in Stokes’ hand. Years later, police acknowledged Stokes did not have a gun when he died. A jury declined to indict Thompson. Stokes’ mother, Narene Stokes-James, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2016.
In December, a Jackson County grand jury declined to charge a Kansas City police officer who shot and killed 30-year-old Terrance M. Bridges in May 2019, but the man’s family has continuously taken the stance that Bridges did not pose a threat to the officer, was not armed when he was shot and was not involved in a carjacking as police said.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ family is still asking basic questions in their attempt to piece together his killing. Why was he stopped by police? Who shot him? Will they get their day in court?
Though they don’t yet have answers, they’re no longer the only ones asking the questions.
Signs reading “who killed Donnie Sanders” have been hoisted into the air at the Country Club Plaza and in front of city hall as hundreds chanted his name in recent weeks.
“It feels really good just to know that we’ve got people behind us,” Youlanda Sanders said.
MARCH 12, 2020
Sanders dropped his sister Reshonda Sanders, 44, off at work at 7 the evening of March 12. He told her he’d be back at 7 a.m. to pick her up.
Police attempted to pull Sanders over around 11:15 p.m. at 51st Street and Prospect Avenue as he drove from his girlfriend’s house near Linwood Boulevard and Chestnut Avenue to his sister’s house on 57th Street and Indiana Avenue.
The car came to a stop in an alley and Sanders got out of the vehicle and ran, police said.
He then turned toward an officer near 52nd Street and raised his arms “as though he had a weapon,” police said at the time. Sanders was told to drop the weapon. Police shot him when he didn’t comply.
Sanders was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died. The officer was placed on administrative leave.
“I never seen him again,” Reshonda Sanders said. “Three detectives came to my job to tell me that Kansas City, Missouri, police shot and killed my brother.”
That was around midnight. Then they left.
The day before, Sanders underwent surgery for a hernia. Reshonda Sanders recalled how he’d walked around the house holding his stomach in pain all day after.
Her guess is that her brother didn’t raise the hand holding his injury as quickly as he did the other. She believes that’s the moment the officer mistook him for having a gun.
“Wrong is wrong. If Donnie was out here doing something wrong, then we OK with that. But at this particular point in time, he wasn’t doing nothing wrong,” she said. “He was trying to come home.”
Police later rescinded their initial statement that Sanders’ was believed to be armed during the stop.
Dashcam footage of the initial interaction and car stop exists, though it has not been released to the public as it’s part of an ongoing investigation, Sgt. Jake Becchina, a Kansas City Police Department spokesman, said in an email.
“We do not release the names of officers involved in shootings when that information is contained within records that are legally not open to the public,” Becchina wrote.
If an officer is charged in a shooting, their name will then be made public, Becchina said.
‘THERE WASN’T ANYTHING ON CAMERA’
Reshonda Sanders is still waiting for a phone call explaining what traffic violation her brother was pulled over for.
“They ain’t told us no nothing,” she said. “We don’t even have an idea.”
She worries that the same officer who shot Sanders is back on the streets. She fears someone else may die.
“To me it sounds like they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to protect the officer instead of giving us justice,” she said.
Becchina said the reason for the initial stop has not yet been made public, as it’s part of an ongoing investigation. The officer who shot Sanders is now back to work.
In the days after the shooting, More2, a Kansas City interfaith social justice organization, circulated an online petition demanding more transparency and accountability from the police department. This included asking for the name of the officer who shot Sanders.
More than 17,200 people had signed the petition as of Friday.
Kansas City Police at the time said in an effort to protect officers’ safety, it is their practice not to name those officers involved in fatal shootings.
Adrian Sanders, 33, believes that had video of his uncle’s death been captured by someone other than police, they wouldn’t be in the dark like they are now.
“I felt like, unless it’s televised, it’s like it doesn’t get the attention or support that it needs, and that’s the problem,” Sanders said. “If it would’ve been caught on camera we would’ve known the officers name, we would’ve probably had an arrest. But the fact that there wasn’t anything on camera, they’re trying to sweep it under the rug and that’s just, that’s an issue.”
He said justice needs to go beyond what’s visible on a recording since many police shootings aren’t caught on public video.
Seven people have been fatally shot by law enforcement in Kansas City this year. One was killed by an FBI agent and another by an Independence officer. The rest were shot by responding Kansas City police officers. Sanders was the fourth killed.
“Donnie’s life and Donnie’s story deserves to be told nationwide, worldwide like everybody else’s,” Reshonda Sanders said, regardless of whether or not footage exists of his final moments.
Some community activists also renewed their plea for body cameras in the days following his death.
In early June, a few days after the protests began, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith told those gathered at the Plaza that the department had secured $2.5 million to fund body cameras for some officers.
‘A HILARIOUS CHARACTER’
Donnie Sanders was among the oldest of six siblings growing up in Kansas City near 30th and Olive streets, about 20 blocks north of where he was later shot.
Even though Youlanda Sanders was a couple years older, her brother would act like he was her dad. One time he told on her for kicking in the screen door. He thought he was so funny, she recalled, laughing as she compared him to Evel Knievel.
Four decades later, her brother was still “a hilarious character.”
At his sister’s birthday party in January, Donnie Sanders jumped off one leg and kicked the other high, knocking a balloon off the ceiling. His nieces and nephews squealed in laughter.
“Donnie’s a people person, period, but he really loved the kids,” Youlanda Sanders said. He would get on the ground and play with the youngest family members, tickling them and dancing with them.
He had two daughters of his own, one a teenager and the other a young adult.
Sanders most recently lived with his sister Reshonda Sanders. People were always stopping by, asking to say hello to her brother.
He loved working with his hands. Sometimes that meant fixing a bike. Once he built his sister a fire pit. He played music loud. He offered to take family members’ cars to get washed.
When pay day came around, he’d often spend part of it on a new pair of kicks. He was in a competition with one of their sister’s boyfriends to see who had the most tennis shoes.
The shoes remain in his room, which has been left mostly untouched since his death. He was a neat freak about his space, Reshonda Sanders said.
Red flowers still sit outside his window sill. A Chiefs jersey still hangs against the glass above.
But there’s one noticeable difference: A container with Sanders’ ashes now occupies the room in place of him.
‘GOD DON’T LIKE UGLY’
Sanders’ sisters still haven’t seen his autopsy results.
But they did see his body. It was still in a bag when they arrived at the funeral home.
“He was still draining blood,” Reshonda Sanders said, describing the bullet holes piercing her brother’s arm and torso. One wound went through a tattoo on Sanders’ stomach. The coroner indicated to them that it looked like an exit wound, which could indicate Sanders had been shot in the back.
Becchina said the autopsy results are also part of the investigation, and therefore not publicly available at this time. He added that Sanders was walking toward the officer when he was shot, according to police.
People ask all the time if the family has heard anything new.
“We ain’t hear nothin’,” Reshonda Sanders says.
Some days she stops by the houses on the block where the shooting happened to see if anyone has new information for her. She and other family members make their own pilgrimages to the shooting scene daily.
Often, she speaks to her brother out loud.
“Why did you leave me?” she asks.
“What are we going to do for your birthday this year?”
Proof of frequent visits by surviving family and friends sits in the grass where a makeshift memorial was erected. One uncle comes by often to cut the grass and fluff the fur on the stuffed animals.
At the end of a recent visit, Youlanda Sanders gathered up poster boards filled with photos of her brother.
“These are all the memories we got, so we better take them with us,” she said.
She hopes the persistent questions by her family and their effort to keep her brother’s memory alive, whether at protests or on Facebook, will play a role in pressing police departments for more transparency not only in their case, but in other cases nationally.
She’s certain of one thing: They aren’t the first family to ask these questions of police and they won’t be the last.
“One thing I’ve got to say to that officer is, God don’t like ugly,” she said.
©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
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