‘We Made a Mistake’: Kansas City Black Man Wrongfully Jailed as a Teen After Cops Misidentified Him Settles with City; Officers Involved Want to Offer Formal Apology

After nearly six years, a 21-year-old Black man who was wrongfully imprisoned for three weeks as a 15-year-old has agreed to settle his lawsuit against the city of Kansas City, Missouri, for almost $1 million.

Tyree Bell has settled with the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners for $900,000 after officers violated his civil rights by wrongfully arresting him in June 2016.

Tyree Bell (Fox4 Screengrab)

The settlement comes after the lawsuit was first filed in 2017 against the officers involved in the arrest as well as the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department. The officers racially profiled and detained Bell, believing was a suspect in a firearms investigation.

On June 8, 2016, officers Jonathan Munyan and Peter Neukirch responded to a call that three Black male teenagers were showing off a firearm to other kids near 91st Street and Marsh Avenue. When the patrol car pulled up on the group and its lights were turned on the boys fled. Two of the boys were apprehended, but one got away.

At the same time as this incident, Bell was walking a few blocks over on 87th Street near a McDonald’s restaurant. He had just gotten left summer school when a different cop nabbed him, believing him to be the third suspect. The officer took Bell over to Munyam and Neukirch and the two positively identified him as the boy that ran.

Bell’s lawyers argued that had the officers listened to his client, who maintained his innocence, and checked their police car dashcam, the young man would have been freed. Instead, he spent three weeks in the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center.

While the teen was incarcerated, his mother contacted the police department and asked them to share with her the evidence they had against her child, however, they never did until almost a month later.

A detective finally looked at the dash camera video from the patrol car and discovered a grave error had been made. He spoke to a local prosecutor to get the charges dismissed and the young man was released on June 29.

Subsequently, the Bell family argued that because the police did not consider the differences between their son and the suspects (i.e. hair, clothing, etc.), the teen’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated and his arrest was unlawful.

Originally, in March 2019, a lower court dismissed the family’s lawsuit. The ruling concluded that the police in question were entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that stops government officials from getting sued.

Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith disagreed with the lower court and submitted to the appeals court on behalf of the victim, “Given the glaring differences, there was not arguable probable cause to believe that Bell was the fleeing suspect. Bell’s right to be free from an arrest and detention under the circumstances was clearly established. It is an obvious case of insufficient probable cause.”

The Associated Press reported in 2020 that a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the arresting officers violated Bell’s constitutional rights when they arrested the teen without probable cause.

They voted that the case should go to trial because the only thing that Bell had in common with the suspect was that he was Black, a juvenile, and male. A jury was presented with the case late last year. That trial ended after the jury was unable to return a unanimous verdict.

Sgt. Jake Becchina, a spokesman for the Kansas City Police Department, said in a statement to The Kansas City Star that the force wanted to come to a “successful resolution for all parties” since the Bell family filed the lawsuit in 2017. He also noted that the officers were regretful for their actions and wanted to personally express that to Bell. “We made a mistake, and the arrest of Mr. Bell was in error,” Becchina said in a statement obtained by Fox4.

“Through the legal process, the officers involved made it known they would like to meet with Mr. Bell and apologize,” Becchina stated. “We are glad we reached a mutual resolution and we wish Mr. Bell and his family all the best.”

Arthur Benson, Bell’s legal counsel, stated, “It was a part of a national disgrace that has been allowed to persist among white police for forty years: cross-race identifications of Black males by white officers are often wrong.”

“And they are often wrong because too many police departments do not train their officers that all Blacks do not look alike and how to make an eyewitness identification that is not tainted by racial stereotypes … Tyree Bell was a victim of the Kansas City Police Department’s failure to address this national outrage,” he said.

The agreement will pay $442,00 in compensatory damages to Bell and $458,000 to Benson and the rest of his legal team.

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