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Two square off in county prosecutor race

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

For the first time since she was appointed Jackson County prosecutor in 2011, Jean Peters Baker faces opposition in the general election as she bids for a third four-year term. 

Jean Peters Baker

Baker, a Democrat, is opposed by Republican Tracey Chappell, who has served as the city prosecutor in Blue Springs for two years, where she started a diversionary program for first-time offenders. She also has served as an assistant county counselor and has been a special representative for the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, investigating bar complaints.

Tracey Chappell

The prosecutor is elected to a term of four years. The office operates independently of the county executive, county sheriff and County Legislature.

Polls in Missouri open next Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In a televised debate with Baker that aired on KCPT-TV, Chappell said she doesn’t believe Baker has the community’s trust and she aims to restore that. Chappell said she decided to run for prosecutor in part because when she defended an alleged child abuser and took issue with the prosecutor in Baker’s office, Baker did not respond and she “saw a family be destroyed because of that.”

Baker responded that the particular email got sent to a wrong address and ultimately was answered by another attorney in her office, and Chappell’s particular allegations were refuted by both judge and jury.

In the past two years, Baker’s office received oversight of the COMBAT tax anti-drug and violence program under changes to the County Charter approved by voters. Baker has tried to implement changes suggested by outside audits. The incumbent prosecutor said she earned her position by working at all aspects of the prosecutor’s office and getting into the community and visiting many crime scenes.

“I’m not a prosecutor who sits at a desk,” she said in the debate.

Baker acknowledged that police use-of-force cases are a “really tough issue for the community, and a tough issue under the law in Missouri.” She said her office has to deal with the law in place rather than what one might want, and she makes an effort to be at the scene of all such cases, if not someone from her office.

“It’s important to guide those cases through the system, and most important, police cannot investigate themselves,” Baker said. “That’s what the community expects, and that’s what they deserve.”

Chappell said community groups don’t support the recent anti-violence initiatives formed by Baker, Kansas City Police and Mayor Quinton Lucas. 

“I understand I have to be a bridge that connects the police department as well as the community,” she said. “The community will act when you interact with them. When you bring the community along with you with the policies and plans, that’s when the trust begins to be built, and right now this is not happening.”

Baker said she has been in the community and agrees it needs to have a key stake at the table, though she can’t specifically direct police or the mayor in what they do.

Kansas City’s No Violence Alliance (NoVA) in 2013 led to a historically low homicide rate in 2014, as well as a higher case clearance rate, she said. 

“The goal for us is how do we get that back,” Baker said.

Chappell said the prosecutor’s office should take a harder stance against vandalism, citing the downtown Andrew Jackson statue and then the police memorial, and she would prosecute marijuana cases after Baker recently declined to continue doing so. Chappell said Eastern Jackson County police officers are frustrated by lack of prosecution or too many plea bargains with property crimes. When those victims then try to get insurance claims, she said, it can lead to higher insurance rates.

“It’s like a bridge to nowhere; it leaves officers and victims disgruntled,” Chappell said.

Baker acknowledged that property crimes are a “hard issue,” but she’s not looking to bring city-level cases to state-level prosecution, and vandalism is a city-level case. She said she wants her office to try looking at cases through a “racial equity lens,” to determine how some cases arrive at their office and if that can lower the racial disproportion of those charged. Baker said her office has tried to expand eligibility for the county’s drug court so more can afford that avenue rather than being locked up.

Chappell said she would try to lower “mass incarceration” in part by having more preliminary hearings and having judges decide whether to proceed based on evidence. Baker responded that there are reasons some cases, such as personal abuse cases, shouldn’t have preliminary hearings and force the victim to face their alleged abuser too many times, and her office has eliminated cash bail for low-level offenses. Plea bargains are another step beyond filing a case, she said, and only happen after “a lot of time and energy.” They also can provide some measure of finality to victims, she said.

In closing the debate, Chappell touted her willingness to “prosecute all crimes even-handedly across the board “ and to bridge the gap between community and police.

Baker, citing as one example her filing charges against a former local bishop for failing to report child sex abuse, said she’s been a leader in her post.

“I’m not afraid to make hard decisions, I am not afraid to lead, and I’m not afraid to take critique,” she said. “That is how the system improves, and that’s why I’m here for another four years.”

Checking the money

Jean Peters Baker’s campaign started the year with more than $113,000 on hand, has raised more than $78,500 this year and has spent more than $35,000.

Top contributors this year include:

• $10,000: CHIPP Political Account (statewide carpenters union).

• $5,000: Louis Accurso; Paul Seyferth; Michael Ketchmark; Kevin Westrope; Jason Holmes.

• $4,226.91: Dennis Waits.

• $2,500: Dollar Burns & Becker LLC.

• $2,000: Missourians for Effective Leadership PAC; Nigro Law Firm.

• $1,500: Hailee Blandish (Mission Hills, Kansas).

• $1,250: John O’Connor.

• $1,000: Plumbers Local 8 PAC; John Quinn; Pipe Fitters Local 533 PAC; Karen Holland; Robert Fox (St. Louis); International Union of Operating Engineers Local 101 PAC; Michael Yonke.

Chappell’s campaign raised $27,721 this year, including $1,625 in loans from herself, and has spent $18,393.

Top contributors include:

$5,000: Kansas City FOP.

$2,525: Marc and Stephanie Taormina.

$2,500: Ted Barnes.

$1,600: Rebecca Rivers (Narragansett, Rhode Island).

$1,200: Steven and Jennifer Prstojevich.

$1,000: Mark Muller (Paola, Kansas).

$850: Jackie Shroer.