Two similar bills in the Kansas Legislature that would require police to release body camera footage to the public in cases of deadly or excessive force are facing pushback from police.
But family members of those shot by police testified at legislative hearings Tuesday that the measures would help grieving families as well as mend trust between law enforcement and communities.
Under current Kansas law, local police 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.
Through tears, Molly White, the stepmother of Dominique White, pleaded with the House Judiciary committee members to “use your power so that other people will not experience this unnecessary stress in their most desperate time.”
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“Nobody wants to watch a video of his or her child being shot and killed,” she said. “Unfortunately the only way for us to get any answers would be for us to watch the video.”
White, 30, was armed and fleeing from police when he was killed in September. The shooting sparked protesters to camp out for several days outside Topeka police headquarters and Black Lives Matter rallies. 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 nearly four months after his son’s death.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘If the police officers weren’t in the wrong, why not just show us? Seeing the body cam footage would’ve answered many of the questions we had,” said Heather Joyce, White’s sister-in-law.
“For 11 weeks, our family was denied answers and access to the body cameras worn by the police officers that morning.”
In the Senate, conservative Republicans — the majority of the Senate judiciary committee — may keep one of the bills from advancing, despite its introduction by a fellow conservative, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican.
“One of the most positive things, through research, as far as an outcome for having body cameras is that it increases transparency within our communities,” Baumgardner said.
“And when we increase transparency in our communities, we increase trust.”
The Senate bill would require police to publicly release the footage within 30 days of a request, while the House version would require public release within five business days of a request. Both would require disclosure within 24 hours to the subject of the video, their attorney, heirs or parents if they are under 18.
Several conservative Republicans on the committee said in interviews after the hearing they do not support the Senate bill in its current form.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, questioned whether the bill could cause further “unrest about police brutality and create a firestorm that socially we’re so ripe for, right now.”
The Johnson County Sheriff's office and the Olathe Chief of Police, on behalf of the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, spoke against the bills. The Sedgwick County Sheriff, Jeff Easter, also spoke against it.
Body cameras don’t have the same perspective as the officers, said Greg Smith, a special deputy/sheriff’s liaison with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
“If you’re looking for this to be some kind of panacea to fix police and community relations, this is not the bill,” he said.
Olathe Police Chief Steven Menke said a body camera is a tool but “rarely tells the entire story.”
“We cannot lose sight of the fact that police officers have the same due process rights as every other citizen,” he said.
One concern by police was the time frame — within 24 hours — to disclose footage to the subject of the video or their families.
“We don’t have staff in the small departments. There are 435 law enforcement agencies; 70 percent have 10 or fewer officers,” said Ramon Gonzalez, a retired Republican legislator and chief of police in Perry, a small town between Topeka and Lawrence, who spoke on behalf of the Kansas Peace Officers Association.
The House body camera bill, introduced by Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat, would also allow for departments to redact or obscure parts of the public video that include nudity or minors.
“We are at a pivotal point where real changes are needed to modernize transparency in Kansas,” Alcala said.
“The question would be, why don’t we have real transparency in Kansas? The short answer: fear and the unwillingness to change.”
He said he had recently witnessed a Topeka community on the edge of civil unrest and the danger to the community of non-transparency.
“I had never witnessed such a stall of information to a family and a community as I had in the Dominique White shooting case,” he said. “I watched the city council hide behind the interpretation of state law, not once using their option of discretionary choice as set in Kansas law for transparency.
“I watched a family and a community lose trust in law enforcement, elected officials and our system.”
The future of the two bills is uncertain, said Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
“I don’t want to impugn anyone with bad intent, but the bottom line is we’re not making progress on this discussion. We heard a lot of complaints and reasons we can’t get the job done,” Carmichael said.
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.
In December, The Star sued the city of Olathe to obtain police body camera footage from the August shooting death of Ciara Howard. The city released the footage to The Star on Jan. 2.