A day after filing a complaint against Kansas City police for violating his right to record, Robel Bekele received a call from his boss informing him that the police department had revoked his license to work as a private security officer.
The 23-year-old father says the apparent act of retaliation by the Missouri police agency is making it difficult for him to provide for his family, eliminating between 20 to 30 hours of work per week.
It all started Tuesday, June 16, when Bekele went to the Circuit Court of Missouri to pay a speeding ticket.
As you can see in the video below, Bekele decided he wasn’t going to make it easy for the government to collect his money, paying $75 of his $133.50 citation in rolled-up pennies, another $58 in one dollar bills and the remaining 50 cents with two quarters.
“This city makes revenue off innocent people when there’s no victim,” Bekele explained.
Bekele brought two phones with him to document what he was doing, using one phone to shoot video and a second phone to take pictures.
At some point, Heather Weidenhammer, the Revenue Manager for the court, saw Bekele taking photos and ordered him to stop, saying he didn’t have permission, evidently not realizing he was also shooting video.
Bekele said he didn’t need permission and it wasn’t long before three Kansas City police officers entered the building. The officers approached Bekele and one of them grabbed Bekele’s phones away from him and stopped the recording.
According to Bekele, the police officer who took his phone said he wasn’t being detained or arrested, but that he would not be given his phones back until he finished with his business and was ready to leave.
Later that day, Bekele went to the police station and spoke with Sergeant James Vaca about making a complaint against the officer who interfered with his right to record and was given a complaint form.
Bekele asked if his lawyer should fill out the form and Vaca responded that if he was planning a lawsuit against the police department, they would not investigate his complaint until the litigation was resolved, which shows how seriously the department takes allegations of criminal conduct by its officers.
The next day, Bekele returned to the courthouse, which is near a federal building as well as the Kansas City Police Department, to conduct a First Amendment audit. He walked around outside while video recording and eventually spotted the police officer who snatched his phones the previous day.
“Look who it is. Same guy from yesterday,” Bekele said.
“Stop right here for me,” the officer ordered. “We got a call on you.”
When Bekele asked, the officer admitted he hadn’t committed a crime, but still said he was being detained.
“You’re filming federal buildings. You know who films buildings? Terrorists!” the officer proclaimed.
Two more officers approached the scene at this point and the three surrounded Bekele.
One of them waved his hand directly in front of Bekele’s phone.
“Hey, I’m gonna take your picture too!” he exclaimed, then took his phone out and shoved it right in front of Bekele’s. “Why don’t you show me some ID?”
Bekele refused to provide an ID and the officers continued detaining him, telling him he needed to provide it. Finally, one of the officers said they weren’t forcing Bekele to stay and he walked away.
The next day, Bekele returned to the police department and turned in his complaint form.
The next morning, he received a call from his boss, telling him his license to work as a security guard was revoked. In Kansas City, working as a private security guard requires a license from from the local police.
Bekele later received a letter from Tamy K. Gallagher, the manager of the Kansas City Police Department’s Private Officers Licensing Unit, which explained that his license to work had been revoked because he was recording police officers and refusing to answer their questions.
The letter referenced the second incident where Bekele was detained outside the courthouse, as well as two prior incidents from May which involved a different police department.
According to the letter:
On June 17, 2015, you were approached by Kansas City, Missouri police officers regarding your suspicious activity in the area of 11 and Cherry. Mr. Bekele [sic] you were walking, filming and photographing the KCPD Headquarters Building, the Federal building, and Municipal court. When Kansas City, Missouri police officer’s [sic] conducted a pedestrian check, you were very confrontational and attempted to provoke the officers by sticking your smart phone in the officer’s [sic] faces and filming them. Mr. Bekele [sic] you also filmed a detective in his unmarked police vehicle. Mr. Bekele [sic] you refused to give your name to a law enforcement officer or answer any of their questions. We also received information from the Overland Park, Kansas police department that on May 7, 2015 and May 12, 2015 your actions were similar to what I have outlined above; you refused to provide your name to a law enforcement officer while you were recording traffic stops and an accident scene along Metcalf.
Gallagher did not accuse Bekele of breaking the law or of abusing his position as a security guard, but claimed that his license was being revoked because he had shown that he was “ineligible or unsuitable to continue to hold a license.”
The police hadn’t even talked to Bekele about his complaint or received copies of his videos before sending the letter, meaning they had made no attempt to investigate what had actually happened before revoking his license.
If they had, they would have seen that the only people being confrontational were the police officers who detained him for no reason.
“I was shocked and surprised that they would go out of their way to harass me through my job,” Bekele said. “Now I can’t work for simply exercising my rights… I have mouths to feed!”
Bekele said he is responsible for his son, his girlfriend who just moved in with him and does not currently have a job, and his girlfriend’s adopted son. Bekele said he works two jobs, one as a security guard and one as a cab driver, to provide for them.
Bekele sent a written appeal regarding the revocation of his license earlier today and has also vowed to take civil action against the police department. He said he is talking with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, although they haven’t agreed to represent him yet.
“Police officers should know that citizens have the right to take pictures and videos from public areas. They shouldn’t have a problem with that unless they’re trying to hide something. They need to stop assuming every citizen taking pictures is a terrorist,” Bekele said.
UPDATE (7/1/2015): Bekele was fired from his job as a security guard this morning.
According to an email from his boss, Bekele was fired because of his revoked license and because of “non-compliance of advising us of law enforcement contact on more than one occasion.” The email says that Bekele’s employer coordinated its investigation “with several agencies within law enforcement.”
Bekele said his employer didn’t interview him about what happened before firing him.
“I was surprised that they terminated me without talking to me about it first, but what can you do?” Bekele said.
Bekele said he enjoys working as a security guard and is planning what he will do next.
“I want to be a police officer some day, but I want to be one of the good guys, the ones that respect peoples’ rights,” he said.
You can call the Kansas City Police Department’s 24 hour non-emergency line at this number: 816-234-5111