October 5, 2016
More bad news on the Kansas City Public Library arrests
by Simon Reichley
Shortly after we posted our initial coverage of the bizarre arrests of Steven Woolfolk and Jeremy Roshe-Kushel at the Kansas City Public Library, the Kansas City Star ran their own coverage of the debacle by Ian Cummings, and a couple of interesting developments came to light. Most notably, the library gave its first official statement on the arrests, which occurred in May. In the statement, library director R. Crosby Kemper III expresses dismay and outrage, not only at the arrests as they occurred, but also at the city’s continued prosecution of Woolfolk and Roshe-Kushel. According to the Star, Roshe-Kushel is being charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, Woolfolk with interfering with an arrest.
The Star also posted a civilian video of Roshe-Kushel’s arrest, and a brief video statement by Woolfolk and Kemper. In it, Kemper explains that the library had declined to issue a statement in the immediate aftermath of the arrest because they assumed that the charges would be dropped almost immediately. He goes on to accuse the police department of choosing to “defend the indefensible” instead of coming to a community-based solution in cooperation with the library.
This is all very understandable considering the arrangement that the library had made with the police presence in the first place, as reported in the Dissent NewsWire piece which we originally covered:
[The] library agreed to allow off-duty police to be on the scene. However, the library set two conditions. First, nobody could be forcibly removed for asking an unpopular question. Second, nobody could be removed at all without consulting with the library staff, who would only allow an individual to be removed if staff concluded they were an imminent threat.
And, as we wrote last time, “Woolfolk… knew that the only thing they could arrest Rothe-Kushel for was trespassing” and that “this was a public event at a public library and thus Rothe-Kushel was not trespassing.”
All of which makes not only the initial arrest, but the sustained prosecution of charges, almost unbelievable. What does the police department have to say about all of this? Guess.
Capt. Stacey Graves, a Kansas City police spokeswoman, said the off-duty officers acted appropriately and with the full authority of the department, though they were on that night employed by the Jewish Community Foundation.
“If security wants the person out, and the officer saw a person being disruptive at the event, then we would remove the person,” Graves said. “We’re there to keep the peace.”
“Anytime someone interferes with an arrest, they should be arrested. That’s a city ordinance,” Graves said.
Let’s not get into the question of what constitutes appropriate action for an off-duty police officer being paid by a private interest to enforce non-existent laws in a public space.
But it is obviously not the case that “being disruptive” is grounds for removal, considering that the institution hosting the event explicitly stated that no one be removed without their consent. It is also not the case that the duty of the police is to “keep the peace.” The duty of the police, as a civic institution, is to enforce the law of the land. And no law anyone is aware of prohibits vocal disagreement with a prominent, controversial public figure, in a space specifically designed for that purpose.
But the city ordinance in question applies only to “any officer of the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department… in the discharge of his/her official duties,” while it has been made repeatedly clear that officers who arrested Woolfolk were off-duty at the time. Further, the language of the Missouri state law that might come into play here specifically restricts its applicability to those who interfere in an arrest “by using or threatening the use of violence, physical force or physical interference.” It is absurd that the police department would choose to prosecute charges of interfering with an arrest made by officers whom the language of the ordinance expressly excludes, by taking actions—seeking a supervisor with whom to discuss the situation— that fall dramatically short of the state’s threshold for actionable resistance.
Which may help explain why the department is so eager to prosecute. If they admit that the initial arrests were unlawful, they might open themselves up to counter-suit by Woolfolk, though it seems unlikely that the library would have any interest in pursuing such action.
Of course, all of this legal wrangling and hand-wringing obscures the very basic and very disturbing implication of the story. As Kemper puts it “We’re going to be living in a different kind of country… If this kind of behavior [asking questions at a library] is unacceptable to the police, then I guess we’re going to have to shut the library down.”
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.