It was a sticky-hot June afternoon in 2016 when 15-year-old Tyree Bell found himself walking down the street and into a web of chaos.
He had just finished his day at summer school and, cellphone pressed to his ear, tried to check in with his mom as he meandered down 87th Street toward Blue Ridge Boulevard.
Suddenly, a Kansas City police patrol car pulled up beside him.
“Come here, bud,” an officer said as he exited the vehicle. “Put your phone on my hood for a second. You got any guns or anything on you?”
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“No,” Tyree responded, his face shrouded in puzzlement and anxiety.
“For right now, I’m going to detain you while we figure this out,” the officer said, placing Tyree in handcuffs and leaning him against the car.
Hands behind his back, Tyree asked: “What am I being detained for?”
“Right now you’re being detained because you match the description of a party that was in a foot chase with our officers that was carrying a gun. So as long as I can verify that it’s not you with him then I’m gonna cut you loose and you’re gonna be gone.
“You’ll be gone here in just a second.”
Instead, Tyree landed in juvenile jail. For three weeks.
Another policeman, officer Peter Neukirch, arrived and identified Tyree as the gun-wielding juvenile.
“You almost got yourself shot,” Neukirch can be heard telling Tyree via dash cam footage.
“He put me in the car and they high-fived each other,” Tyree recalls now. “I was shocked.”
Tyree would spend three weeks in the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center in a case of mistaken identity for a crime he did not commit — even though police had video evidence of his innocence.
Now his mother, Sherri James, is suing the police on his behalf in federal court for wrongful arrest and “deliberate indifference” to his rights.
The suit, which accuses police of unlawful arrest, negligent training and supervision and deprivation of Tyree’s constitutional rights, is scheduled to go to trial in March. Defendants include arresting officers Neukirch and Jonathan Munyan, Detective John Mattivi, Police Chief Richard Smith and the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners.
The Star asked police for comment, specifically why it took officers weeks to view the exonerating footage. The department’s spokesman, citing pending litigation, declined to comment. But in a court filing responding to the suit, police denied violating Tyree’s constitutional rights or sitting on evidence.
Court documents filed a year ago by civil rights attorney Arthur Benson allege that at about 4 p.m. June 8, Munyan and Neukirch responded to a report of three black teenagers brandishing a firearm near 91st Street and Marsh Avenue.
Within minutes, the officers found the teens and briefly sounded their siren. Two of the teens lay on the ground, surrendering to Neukirch. The third teen, wearing a white shirt and shoulder-length dreadlocks, took off his flip-flops and fled, with Munyan in pursuit.
Vehicle dash cam footage from the officers’ patrol car obtained by The Star showed the teen pulling a gun out of his pocket and throwing it over a fence.
That same footage showed Munyan chasing the suspect at about 4:17 p.m. and shouting into his radio receiver: “Black male. Gun. Blue shorts.”
Less than 30 seconds later, dispatchers gave a more detailed description to officers in the area:
“Party at large is going to be a black male, 17, 18 years of age … 5-10, thin, wearing white shirt, blue shorts, took off his shoes, was last seen running westbound from 92nd and James A. Reed, armed with a gun.”
The suspect eventually outran Munyan and was never apprehended.
At 4:26, more than a mile away, another KCPD officer spotted Tyree walking along 87th Street, separate dash cam footage obtained by The Star shows.
Tyree was also thin, with dreadlocks and wearing a white T-shirt. However, Tyree is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and was wearing black shorts with white stripes as well as shoes — a pair of sneakers — and showing no signs of having run a sub-seven-minute mile.
“I kind of thought I was going to get let off, because I knew that I didn’t do anything,” Tyree told the Star during a recent interview inside the Blue Ridge branch of the Mid-Continent Library, barely a mile from where he was apprehended.
He is soft-spoken and often looks down when he talks. Before the arrest, the most trouble he can recall getting into was a fight in the eighth grade. He even played recreational basketball for the neighborhood Police Athletic League.
“I blame myself for it all happening,” said his mother, sitting next to Tyree.
The only reason, James said, that Tyree was walking down the road that afternoon was that she was out picking up her nephew as a last-minute favor for her sister. The unexpected errand drew her away from home and left Tyree locked out. To escape the heat, he decided to stop by his cousin’s house nearby. She wasn’t there either, so Tyree headed back home.
“If I was there to let my son into the house, none of this would have happened.”
Once she arrived at the detention center, James said, detective Mattivi told her that there was video evidence of everything.
“So I’m wondering why he isn’t looking at it,” she said. “They had the proof and wouldn’t even take the time to look at it and confirm that it wasn’t my child.”
Over the next three weeks, James said, she called Mattivi multiple times, pleading with him to view the exonerating dash cam footage. “He wasn’t in a rush to get to it.”
During that time, James said, she was “in and out of it mentally” and experienced frequent panic attacks. “Knowing that your son is in a cell for something he didn’t do? It was horrible.”
Tyree said he struggled with depression while in the detention center.
“I cried the first night,” he said. “Being stuck in a cell for a long amount of hours, that’s hard.”
Twenty-one days later, on June 29, James received a call from Mattivi. “He was like, ‘You can come and get him, we’re releasing him,’” James said. “No apology or anything.”
In the two years since he was released, Tyree has started a club at Ruskin High School to encourage students to build stronger connections with their special needs classmates. He’s also become a mentor to younger teens who have had run-ins with the law.
Now a senior, he hopes to attend college after graduation to become a child psychologist.
But, he said, “my attitude has changed toward the police. Every time I see a police officer or a police car, I feel like I’m in trouble. I don’t know how to really explain it, it’s just a feeling that I get. The police, I felt like they were there to comfort and support.
“I don’t feel that anymore.”