Protesters march downtown

Chad Frey
Marchers kneeled on the courthouse lawn during a protest walk on Wednesday in Newton.

As protests sweep across the nation and state in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, protesters gathered in downtown Newton with the death of a local man in mind.

Following a chase on Aug. 28, 2017, that started in Newton and ended on Interstate 135 in McPherson County, a McPherson County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed William “Matt” Holmes, of Newton.

“Matt never got justice. Matt needs justice. We are here to make justice for Matt,” said marcher Autumn Muller.

The protest grew out of a social media event posting called “Justice Walk for Matt” started by members of the family of William Holmes. They urged walkers to maintain a peaceful protesters to stay peaceful

They got her wish. About 75 marchers gathered in the Dollar General parking lot on Main Street — a building and parking lot now owned by the city in the 400 block of Main. Carrying signs like “Justice for Matt,” they marched north to the County Courthouse where they kneeled for several minutes. They then marched back to the Dollar General parking lot where they rallied for about 30 minutes before dispersing.

As they marched, Newton police officers provided escort to stop traffic for the pedestrians. In the parking lot, two officers handed out bottled water to those who needed a cold drink on a hot night.

“I applaud each and every one of you and your actions today,” said Mike Yoder, of the Newton Police Department. “There are many towns around that do not have the decorum or wherewithal you did today.”

Marchers chanted slogans along the way including “No justice, no peace” and “I can’t breathe.” The latter has become a national cry in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn.

Holmes was shot and killed after a more than 20-mile pursuit that began in Newton and ended in McPherson County. He was, according to reports by the McPherson County prosecutor’s office, shot in the back while struggling with a Newton police officer.

His passenger in the car, Kenneth C. Herrod, was arrested that night — charged with burglary, theft and aiding and abetting assault following the incident.

The McPherson County prosecutor, Gregory T. Benefiel, issued a finding in December 2017 that McPherson County Deputy Chris Sommers, was “immune from prosecution” and no criminal charges would be filed.

The family filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the McPherson and Harvey County sheriff’s departments, the City of Newton and several officers involved in the incident along I-135. The City of Newton has since been removed from the litigation.

Following the rally, Yoder discussed with protesters the need of more dialogue between police departments and the general public in a video broadcast live on Facebook by The Newton Kansan. When asked what the department is doing to improve relationships in Newton, he referenced the Law Enforcement Advisory Panel.

It is for grievances just like this, and many others, that the Newton Law Enforcement Advisory Panel exists.

“The Legislature established this framework in Kansas, and the City of Newton has adopted it,” said Greg Nickel, a LEAP member who works as a municipal court clerk for the City of Newton. “We exist to address issues of race-based policing and we are there for people if they feel like they have been profiled, especially based on race.“

LEAP is composed of nine members appointed by the mayor with the consent of the majority of the City Commission. The composition of the panel is required reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the community. Members serve three-year terms.

According to Nickel, a LEAP member who works as a municipal court clerk for the city of Newton, the recently rebooted group has advised NPD for expanded options to file profiling complaints and renewed regular meetings, including meetings with police department leadership.

The next scheduled meeting for LEAP is 7 p.m. June 9 at the Newton Recreation Center, 415 N. Poplar.

LEAP has been around for several years, but the group faded into the background a few years ago. Meetings of LEAP were not happening, because they were not called by either leadership or the chief of police in that area.

The group has made a comeback, rebounding under new leadership not only of LEAP, but new leadership at the Newton Police Department.

LEAP is designed to serve as a “a bridge between the police and community members,” with an eye on community members who might feel profiled — no matter what reason they may feel that has happened to them.

“Some people can be hesitant in going to police with a complaint or a concern. If that is the case, they can come to LEAP and express that. We can be an advocate,” said LEAP member Gloria Arellano

Marchers head to the courthouse during the "Justice for Matt" walk on Wednesday evening in Newton.