The Kansas City Star has sued the city of Olathe to obtain police body camera footage from the August shooting death of Ciara Howard.
Two police officers and a Johnson County sheriff’s deputy fired repeatedly as they stormed a house with Howard inside, killing the 26-year-old woman. Prosecutors determined police were justified in using lethal force but left open questions about police tactics in the incident.
Police have said Howard pointed a handgun at them, but witnesses to events outside the house questioned police tactics.
Olathe police have “refused to discuss” or answer questions about their tactics and decisions that day, the lawsuit said. Specifically, it said, they have not addressed “the question expressly left open by the Johnson County District Attorney’s office, i.e., ‘[I]n the spectrum of options police have, did they choose the best course of action.’ ”
The Star sought access to and copies of police body camera footage under the Kansas Open Records Act. Olathe officials claimed the footage was part of “closed personnel records” in that it was included in an internal affairs review of the incident, according to the newspaper’s lawsuit.
Police had shown the footage to Howard’s boyfriend, her mother, her mother’s husband and a family friend, according to the lawsuit. They claim, the lawsuit said, that “the footage clearly shows that the officers’ actions were unwarranted.”
The city, however, denied The Star’s request “without a reasonable basis in law,” saying it was “contrary to existing judicial precedent” and “not in good faith.”
Olathe city attorney Ron Shaver said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the case. The suit was filed in Johnson County District Court Thursday.
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 often 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. In this case, the city made its personnel records claim.
“Kansas law enforcement cannot be allowed to operate in the dark. The point of having body camera legislation is to ensure public confidence in our legal process, especially in cases where a citizen’s life has been lost,” said Mike Fannin, editor of The Star.
In its lawsuit, The Star cited an April 2017 Johnson County District Court ruling that held that video recordings of a Merriam official “stealing gas from the city’s fuel truck” were not a closed personnel record. The judge in that case ruled that the recordings were not “transformed into personnel records” by being placed in the city official’s personnel file.
Similarly, The Star’s suit argued, the police body camera footage was made not by the department’s Internal Affairs Unit or any undercover investigation but was a routine recording by the officer’s body camera.
The Star asked the court for judgment declaring that body camera footage is part of the public record and for an injunction ordering its release.
Previously, The Star supported a lawsuit by The Wichita Eagle that sought police body camera footage in two incidents involving questioned police practices in Wichita.