Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY — A Kansas lawmaker has drafted a bill aimed at loosening the release of information related to police shootings.
The bill — which will be formally introduced at the start
of the Kansas legislative session on Jan. 13 — would require all law
enforcement agencies in the state to prepare a written policy for
investigation when police kill people and mandate that those
investigations be handled by an outside agency.
If, at the conclusion of the investigation, a prosecutor
determines the officer did not commit a crime, the bill would require
the agency to release the investigative report to the public.
State Representative David Benson, a Democrat from Overland Park, said he worked with Sheila Albers, the mother of a 17-year-old killed in a 2018 officer-involved shooting, to find a legislative solution to the issues her organization, JoCo United, has focused on since the shooting.
In Johnson County, Albers said, many departments already
have a written policy and every department uses an outside agency for
investigating police shootings.
The portion of the bill that would bring changes to the
county, she said, is the provision requiring the district attorney to
release the investigative report if there are no criminal charges.
Albers and Benson said the bill, which was modeled after similar legislation in Wisconsin, would add credibility to investigations and promote better policy in departments.
“When you have objective factual information then you’re
able to train people down the road either to reinforce good decisions or
to change bad decisions,” Albers said. “Without the data nobody’s going
to learn anything … there’s no way prevent it from happening again.”
When Alber’s son was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer she said she received little information from police about the subsequent investigation.
A month after the shooting, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe ruled that the officer who shot Albers was
justified. After the decision was announced, another family member
requested a variety of documents related to the incident and unsuccessfully sued the city and district attorney for access to the records.
The bill would not apply retroactively to her son’s case, Albers said. But it would provide more information in future cases.
“Ideally I would like (the records in my son’s case
released) but that’s not going to bring John back,” Albers said. “More
importantly is that will this save lives down the road.”
The officer, Clayton Jenison, resigned after the shooting. He was never charged.
On Tuesday, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez said
if the bill promoted by Sheila Albers passes it won’t affect the
investigative work done by his department or by prosecutors.
“We’ll do whatever the Kansas Legislature decides,” Donchez said.
Howe, the Johnson County District Attorney, said he was
concerned that rural police departments would struggle to adhere to the
provision requiring an outside investigation.
He also said he worried about the privacy implications of the bill.
“I’m not sure it gives enough clarity to law enforcement
and prosecutors on what is allowed (to be redacted) and what isn’t,”
He said the bill could require sensitive information about those involved in an incident be released the the public.
“Once that Pandora’s box is open it’s open to everybody not
just responsible people but also irresponsible people who would use it
to get more clicks on the internet,” Howe said. “It permits anybody to
make this request and have this information available. I think that’s
In a world where some police departments use body cameras
and dashboard cameras, Howe said, the rest of the investigative file
does not need to be released.
“What gap does it fill that wouldn’t already be provided by the video itself?” he said.
However, video collected by police cameras is not an open record in Kansas and is often not released to the public.
Recent changes to Kansas law require law enforcement to allow heirs, guardians and attorneys of video subjects to view the footage.
Benson, the lawmaker, said the bill would use the Kansas Open Records Act as a basis for exempting sensitive information from being released.
The release of the investigative report, Benson said, would
build public trust and protect the officer from accusations of
“Policing is hard work and in no way am I suggesting that
it is not — it’s difficult and it’s instantaneous kinds of work and our
officers do a great job,” Benson said. “I think that public trust can be
built through disclosure rather than non-disclosure.”