The Kansas City Star is partnering with The Wichita Eagle in a lawsuit over the city of Wichita’s failure to release body camera footage from two incidents involving questioned police practices.
In one incident, an off-duty Wichita police officer was suspected of drinking and driving and being involved in a hit-and-run incident. In the other, Wichita police handcuffed an Iraqi-American man who was trying to deposit a check at a bank.
The Eagle sued after several attempts to obtain the footage under the Kansas Open Records Act. Wichita has not provided copies or access to the footage in either incident.
In each case, the city’s denials were “not in good faith” and were “without a reasonable basis in fact or law,” the Eagle said in the lawsuit, filed Friday in Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita, in cooperation with The Star.
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Wichita city attorney and director of law Jennifer Magaña said in an email that the city does not comment on pending litigation.
A recent investigation by The Star on secrecy in Kansas government found that the state has one of the most restrictive laws on police body cameras in the country.
Footage is classified as an investigative record and not subject to mandatory disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act. While family members may eventually see what was captured on camera, the public may never have that opportunity.
“Police departments have done a public service with the release of body cam footage in cases around the country. Yet in Kansas, the few videos released are only what the police want the public to see. We believe Kansans deserve full transparency,” said Mike Fannin, editor of The Star.
Steve Coffman, editor of The Eagle, said he is hopeful the lawsuit will bring clarity to the debate over police body camera footage.
“The Kansas Open Records Act contains provisions for the release of police body camera footage, but we believe the law has been widely misinterpreted to, in fact, prevent the release of footage in most circumstances,” Coffman said. “In reality, law enforcement agencies in Kansas only release body camera footage when doing so promotes a positive image of the agencies.”
Both newspapers are owned by McClatchy.
In the case of the officer alleged to have been involved in a hit-and-run incident, Wichita denied the footage, saying it was part of criminal investigation records, according to the lawsuit. The suit also said that the city failed to identify “any prospective law enforcement action, criminal investigation or prosecution that would be interfered with” by disclosing the footage.
The suit notes that the Sedgwick County district attorney has said no charges were planned.
The Eagle has reported that the FBI is investigating the Wichita police department’s internal investigation. An FBI spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny the report.
In the bank deposit case, city officials originally prepared to grant the Eagle’s request but cited technical problems producing the footage and then sought fees for redacting some information from the footage.
Ultimately, Wichita denied the request in its entirety.
Its letter, filed as an exhibit in the suit, said body camera footage falls under the state law’s provision that “video tapes ... or similar ... visual items” are not required to be disclosed unless they were “shown ... to a public meeting of the governing body” of Wichita.
The Eagle argued in its response, also filed as an exhibit, that the body camera footage is “not a ‘video tape’ or even similar to a video tape” but is “in digital form” and “can be easily copied” to an external storage device.
The bank customer’s treatment by police led to complaints by a national Islamic-American advocacy group.
“Something is not right, either in the policies and procedures or with the way it was implemented,” said Moussa Elbayoumy, chairman of the Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “If someone did not properly apply the policy, they need to be held accountable.
“If the policy the way it is led to this disaster, then obviously the policy needs to be changed,” Elbayoumy said.