Many law enforcement officers begin each day by attaching a body camera to their uniforms. The cameras are as much a part of their routine as affixing their badges and checking their firearms.
The video recordings that result should serve as an crucial check on the legal process, answering important questions about how law enforcement officers do their jobs and ensuring public confidence in the police. But too often, the footage from these cameras is shrouded in secrecy.
The video is frequently classified as an investigative record, filed away in the officer’s personnel files or sealed from public view amidst internal affairs investigations.
This is especially true in Kansas, as a recent Kansas City Star investigation revealed. The August shooting death by police of a young mother in Olathe is a grim example.
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The Kansas City Star is suing the city of Olathe to obtain the body camera footage from officers involved in the death of 26-year-old Ciara Howard, who was killed when officers stormed into her boyfriend’s house. They had been unable to coax Howard to come outside.
Howard’s crimes were hardly the type that you’d expect to end in her death by a barrage of bullets.
Howard was bipolar. She had walked away from Johnson County’s Adult Residential Center where she’d been sent after she argued with her mother, drove off in someone else’s car and then ran on foot from officers when they tried to stop her.
Leaving the center in late August violated her probation. So officers had an arrest warrant for her and wound up in a standoff when they tried to serve it. They knew she had a handgun. They also knew that she was alone in the house, not threatening anyone.
After several hours, Howard was simply repeating back what officers said, clearly in an agitated mental state, according to her boyfriend.
Eventually, police declared that she had five more minutes to comply.
Then a half dozen Olathe police and Johnson County deputies rushed into the house. Police said Howard pointed a gun at them. Her mother later counted at least nine bullet holes in the walls of the room where her daughter died.
The district attorney’s office cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing. But it also said that the scope of the district attorney’s work was only to determine if the two officers and the sheriff’s deputy who fired the shots had acted within the law.
Questions about police tactics and the course of action officers chose remain unanswered because the city of Olathe claims that the body camera video is not releasable under the Kansas Open Records Act. Olathe said the footage became a part of personnel records when the Internal Affairs Unit conducted its administrative review.
That explanation raises the possibility that one or more of the officers were reprimanded for their handling of the incident.
“The fact that the recordings may have later been used by the Internal Affairs Unit to review the officer’s performance does not ‘transform’ them into closed personnel records,” according to The Star’s lawsuit, filed Dec. 21 in Johnson County District Court.
Olathe refused to answer a Star reporter’s questions about how the officers might have assessed Howard’s mental health that day. And the officers did not try to contact a mental health professional who is available to the department through a relationship with its hostage/crisis negotiation team, according to the suit.
Olathe police showed the video footage to Howard’s boyfriend, her mother, the mother’s husband and a former Kansas county undersheriff. They claim the video “clearly shows” that Howard “posed no immediate danger to anyone,” according to the lawsuit.
By law, police have extraordinary leverage to use lethal force. And it’s true that the general public often does not understand that even an unarmed person can pose a lethal threat to officers, triggering a shooting. Police are not trained to shoot to wound. If their lives are in danger or if a citizen’s life is in danger, they will take a person’s life.
But strong police training also teaches officers to deescalate situations, not to ratchet up tensions until it becomes necessary, and therefore legal, for them to draw their weapons. This is especially important in cases where a mentally unstable person is involved.
The body camera video could shed much-needed light on questions about officers’ actions leading up to the moment Howard was fatally shot. As Mike Fannin, The Star’s editor said, “Kansas law enforcement cannot be allowed to operate in the dark.”
Body camera footage is becoming an integral part of law enforcement records. And the public should have access to those routine recordings from officers’ cameras.
For too long, Kansas’ default position on questions such as this one has been to err on the side of secrecy. In this case and others, body camera video must be part of the public record.