Since 2005, the Lawrence Police Department has investigated 163 complaints against Lawrence police officers.
Complaints against Lawrence police
Number of complaints/Number sustained
2005 40 11
2006 51 15
2007 22 4
2008 20 5
2009 24 8
2010 (Jan.-July) 65
More than a quarter of those complaints led to disciplinary action, and seven officers have been fired or resigned as a result of those complaints.
But that’s about all we know of the cases. The city of Lawrence says information about who the officers were, the specific allegations they faced, and how the cases were handled should not be public.
Click here for details from some recent complaints.
Citing the “personnel” exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act, the city manager’s office has denied a Journal-World open records request seeking the investigative case files for all police internal affairs investigations.
Following the denial, the Journal-World asked Lawrence police to release only the investigative files for cases that led to the termination of an officer’s job, but that request also was denied. The police did, however, provide very brief case summaries for complaints in 2009 and 2010.
Tarik Khatib, interim Lawrence police chief, said internal affairs records, which can lead to disciplinary action, are personnel records, and the department has a policy of not releasing those without an employee’s consent.
But Topeka first amendment lawyer Mike Merriam doesn’t buy the city’s argument.
“What an officer does in public is not a personnel matter,” he said.
Merriam added that the exemption is designed to protect personal employee information such as home address, Social Security number or disciplinary record. That shouldn’t include an officer’s “interaction with citizens in public.”
‘The process works’
The personnel exemption of the Kansas Open Records Act is discretionary. That is, a governmental agency isn’t prohibited from disclosing such records, but it has the option to do so.
So if the police are properly investigating claims of misconduct, why not open them up to the public?
Because doing so would present some practical problems that could hinder the process, Khatib said.
“The process works and if this was public it would impact the philosophy of coming out and self-reporting and talking to us,” he said.
Khatib said most of the complaints are “relatively minor,” and if full details came out they could “get turned into embarrassing situations for officers or embarrassing situations for citizens.”
Khatib also cited oversight measures currently in place. Twice a year, the police department reviews the cases with the city manager’s office. And city commissioners are furnished with case summaries of all investigations. However, only the city manager and the police department have full access to the investigative reports, Khatib said.
Khatib questions the need for more transparency in the process, saying there haven’t been any complaints about how the system currently works.
“Give me specific things where there’s been corruption that hasn’t been exposed?” Khatib said.
Unresolved legal issue
Whether such records are open to the public has been debated across the country, but courts often side with the public, said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Horvit cited various cases where media outlets in other states have obtained similar records, but oftentimes only after lengthy and expensive legal battles. Those court cases, however, only apply to individual states, and the issue has yet to be resolved in Kansas courts.
Merriam is preparing a lawsuit in Shawnee County to obtain records from the Topeka Police Department. An open records request by a media outlet for “defensive action” reports — created when an officer uses a weapon — was denied by the Topeka Police Department, also on grounds that the reports were personnel records.
The case could take up to 18 months to resolve, said Merriam, and legal costs could top $20,000 depending on possible appeals.
An option discussed between the Journal-World and city of Lawrence attorneys is asking the Attorney General’s Office — which monitors open records laws — to provide an opinion on the case. Scott Miller, attorney for the city, said the city will consider making such a request since there isn’t a clear-cut legal precedent in Kansas.
Either way, Merriam said this is “an old issue” that needs an answer.
“It’s time to get this settled,” he said, adding that he believes the courts will eventually open police internal affairs records to the public.
It’s an important battle to fight, he said.
“This is ... government-endorsed action by licensed officers who carry guns,” he said. “There can’t be anything more important than that.”