Why did KC police release video of assault on officer but keep so many others secret?

The dashcam video Kansas City police released last week showing three suspects firing two handguns and a rifle at an officer during a high-speed pursuit is difficult to watch.

The footage and accompanying audio from the officer’s in-dash camera bring the dangers of policing into sharp relief.

The Kansas City police officers involved in the incident should be commended for their courage under fire and for the swift capture of the suspects, all of whom face a multitude of charges, including assault on a law enforcement officer.

But the release of this video also raises questions about the department’s refusal to make relevant information public in so many other cases. The Kansas City Police Department has long been reluctant to release videos or other pertinent details in high-profile police pursuits or officer-involved shootings.

After Kansas City police shot and paralyzed Philippe Lora in 2013, his $4.8 million settlement was kept secret for years. Dashcam video from a patrol car showed the incident in its entirety, but the footage wasn’t publicly released until The Star wrote about the settlement in 2017.

The names of the officers involved in a July shooting in the parking lot of a convenience store on Grand Boulevard near Sixth Street still haven’t been made public. A male suspect was shot after he pointed a gun at police.

Days earlier, police in the Northland shot a man wielding a knife. The officers’ identities will probably never be known unless prosecutors file criminal charges, a highly unlikely scenario. The suspect was charged with assault for allegedly stabbing another man.

Police say last week’s release of the high-speed pursuit video was in compliance with the Sunshine Law. To be sure, any effort to be transparent should be lauded.

But when the department’s default position has been to decline to go public with video footage and other information, this sudden situational embrace of openness is curious at best. Are determinations about when to release videos guided by whether the visuals reflect favorably on police?

The department’s lack of a clear and consistent policy means that decisions about when to release video or other information are subjective and opaque.

“Each situation is different,” a spokesman for the Kansas City Police Department said. “We strive for transparency in every case while also protecting the integrity of the investigation and preserving the prosecution’s ability to successfully present charges.

“We take all of these things into account when determining when/if to release video of suspects or officers’ actions.”

Many cities across the country have made it standard practice to release the names of police officers involved in use of force and other incidents within a matter of days. Kansas City should do the same. More broadly, the police department should develop guidelines that specify when video and other information can be made public.

Kansas City police want to equip more than 300 police vehicles with new dashboard cameras at a cost of $7.2 million. The dashcams are an essential tool for police work and are integral to public accountability. The new equipment should be paired with new policies for consistently making information public.

Improved transparency will help build trust with the community. As law enforcement officials struggle to stem violent crime in this city, police must have the residents’ confidence and cooperation.

To continue to build that trust, the department must be accountable and transparent in every interaction with the public — not just the encounters that cast officers in a positive light.