TOPEKA, Kan. — Some Kansas police departments do not identify officers involved in fatal shootings, and body camera footage from the incidents may never become public. Records in unsolved criminal cases can remain closed indefinitely, even to victims’ families.
Grieving families can wait years to get answers about relatives who’ve been killed, and weak state transparency laws can allow law enforcement agencies to avoid public scrutiny, The Kansas City Star reports . And Kansas is less open than other states, including neighboring Missouri.
Kansas in 2014 became the last state in the nation to open affidavits that spell out the details behind arrests, though judges in some counties still seal them.
“I don’t trust a government that wants to let us know what we can and cannot know,” said attorney Cheryl Pilate, who recently helped win the release of a Kansas City, Kansas, man who was wrongly convicted of a 1994 double homicide. Pilate works in both Kansas and Missouri, and said obtaining investigative records is far easier in Missouri.
A 2016 state law designated officers’ body camera footage as a criminal investigation record, meaning that without a court order, authorities can refuse to make it public.
Topeka has refused to release body camera footage from the September shooting of a 30-year-old black man by two as-yet-unidentified officers and even told his family’s attorneys that for now only his minor children could see it. The family of a 47-year-old Leavenworth man shot to death in July by a police officer does not know the officer’s name and hasn’t seen body camera footage.
In response to open records requests on shootings involving officers since 1980, police departments in Kansas City, Kansas, Olathe, Overland Park, and Wichita declined to name the officers involved. Authorities cite officer safety and the need for thorough investigations.
“There’s a climate of anti-law enforcement sentiment in this country,” said Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez.
Hours after a fatal shooting in Minneapolis, the officer’s name, how long he’d been on the job and some details from his personnel file were released. That same month, the names of two Plant City, Florida, police officers were released days after a fatal shooting.
In Kansas, secrecy can surround more than shootings involving police officers. Harold and Alberta Leach filed a lawsuit to get access to records related to the 1988 disappearance of their son, who has never been found. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation says it is still investigating the case when new leads arise.
The law for making affidavits public was a response to a 2012 raid by authorities on the home of a Leawood couple wrongly suspected of cultivating marijuana. No drugs were found; the Johnson County sheriff’s office refused to release an affidavit explaining the rationale for the raid, prompting the couple to sue and pay attorneys $20,000.
“How’s it any different than North Korea whisking tourists off the streets and saying they’re spies without any indication for why they’re charged?” said Ron Keefover, president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.”
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com