Two similar bills in the Kansas Legislature would require police to release police body camera footage to the public in cases of deadly or excessive force.
The legislation would change existing law that allows police to use discretionary exemptions in the Kansas Open Records Act to choose whether or when they release the footage.
White, 30, was armed and fleeing from police when he was killed. The shooting sparked protesters to camp out for several days outside Topeka police headquarters, Black Lives Matter rallies and a community forum facilitated by the Department of Justice. The district attorney is not filing charges against the officers.
White’s father was not permitted to view police body-camera footage of the shooting until mid-December.
Alcala’s bill would require video of police shootings that result in harm or death be available to family within 24 hours of a request and available to the public within five days. It would allow for departments to redact or obscure parts of the public video that include nudity or minors.
A similar bill was introduced by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Baumgardner’s bill would extend the time to release the video up to 30 days, with no difference in the timeline for families compared to the public.
Baumgardner said she spoke with county and district attorneys about their current processes to help determine the time frame in the bill.
“We’re trying to be practical and allow time for the natural process,” she said. “But I have heard from grieving families and they just want to know what happened in the final moments. We have to have respect for the family. They shouldn’t have to have the means to lawyer-up just to see what happened.”
By having bills in each chamber from each party, the legislative process will likely be faster and may give the bill a greater chance of becoming law.
“I think it’s more than fine they’re a little different,” Baumgardner said. “It allows for discussion and the ability to compromise.”
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of The Star’s series in November on secrecy in Kansas government, which pointed out that the state has one of the most restrictive body camera laws in the nation.
Max Kautsch, a Lawrence lawyer who works with the Kansas Press Association, said Alcala’s bill “would represent a strong step forward toward transparency in Kansas.”
“The Legislature should be applauded for recognizing the importance in taking away at least some of the discretion afforded to law enforcement in determining how and when to release criminal investigation records, including body camera footage.”
Alcala said he believes the changes to the law will benefit both law enforcement and citizens.
“In the Dominique White case, it took a long time for that to become public,” Alcala said. “It creates a lot of unrest among citizens, and that’s not good public relations between law enforcement and taxpayers.
“What it’s going to come down to is how transparent law enforcement wants to be. The political component is no one wants to make cops mad. I don’t want to make cops mad. But this is the right thing to do.”
Alcala said the way the law is currently written, local departments can decide whether they want to publicly release footage by citing discretionary exemptions in the open records law. Some never release the footage publicly, while others do so quickly. He cited the recent swatting incident in Wichita where police released an eight-second video the next day.
“Some local agencies try to say it’s state law that they can’t release it, which isn’t true,” Alcala said. “Either they don’t understand (the law) or they don’t politically want to understand it.”
One of those discretionary exemption allows agencies not to release body camera footage by claiming it’s a criminal investigation record.
Alcala’s bill also addresses the disclosure of criminal investigation records. State law currently allows public entities to leave criminal investigations “active” indefinitely.
One family profiled in the recent Star series, Harold and Alberta Leach, have been fighting for nearly 30 years to find out what happened to their son, Randy, who disappeared when he was 17.
The couple recently lost a court case in Leavenworth County when a judge denied their request for the disclosure of the decades-old police records, which have been closed because police still consider them active criminal investigation records. Seeing those records would bring them a degree of closure, they say.
“The investigation could stay open forever and that information would never become public,” Alcala said of the current law.
His bill defines when a criminal investigation is considered closed, including:
▪ When law enforcement decides not to pursue the case;
▪ The expiration of the time to bring a charge or file a complaint under the applicable statute of limitations, or 30 years after the commission of the offense, whichever is earlier;
▪ Exhaustion of or expiration of all rights of appeal by a person convicted on the basis of the criminal investigation records.
It would also allow for inactive cases to remain closed if it would interfere with any prospective law enforcement action, criminal investigation or prosecution; reveal the identity of any confidential source or undercover agent; reveal confidential investigative techniques or procedures not known to the general public; or endanger the life or physical safety of any person.
Baumgardner’s bill does not define when a criminal investigation is no longer active.
Several bills this session are focusing on transparency in Kansas government.
“It’s pretty cool to say ‘I support transparency,’ but you have to move forward and take deliberate steps to ensure access that’s available for all,” Baumgardner said.