Douglas County Sheriff’s Office denies request for information about alleged assault

For the past month, the Journal-World has been trying to get more information about a complaint from a former Douglas County Jail inmate alleging that she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a deputy at the jail. However, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office officials have declined to provide further information about the case, including the denial of an open records request.

Here’s a recap of the case, and the responses the Journal-World received:

• In late June, a woman, who asked that her name not be used, told the Journal-World she was sexually assaulted multiple times by a guard in 2010 while an inmate at the jail. The woman said these assaults occurred during routine pat-downs and included fondling of genitalia and sexual penetration. The woman made a formal complaint to the sheriff’s office in 2011, but the allegations were deemed “not sustained” by the sheriff’s office. The woman said she contacted the Journal-World because she was concerned such assaults could still be happening in the jail.

• We contacted sheriff’s office officials, who confirmed such a complaint was reported and investigated. The sheriff’s office denied an open records request for the completed investigative report of the case, citing a discretionary exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act, identifying the report as a “personnel” record. Officials referred us to information provided to the Journal-World in 2011, when we published a story about internal affairs complaints made to area police departments. The complaint by the woman was summarized by the sheriff’s office as follows:

“Inmate complained that inmate was touched inappropriately during ‘pat-down’ search. Not sustained.”

• We asked the sheriff’s office if a third party had been contacted about the allegations, such as the Kansas Attorney General’s Office, which has authority to investigate alleged crimes committed by law enforcement in the state. However, the sheriff’s office denied this information request.

Jeff Wagaman, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said that office could not “comment, confirm or deny the existence of an investigation of a case unless it has reached a public stage of the proceedings.” Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said his office had not been contacted about the case, something that would typically only occur if law enforcement believes there is probable cause that a crime was committed.

• Because the complaint alleged a sexual assault, we asked the sheriff’s office if the alleged victim’s report prompted a criminal complaint, but that request was also denied.

• Sheriff Ken McGovern wrote a letter to the Journal-World, outlining the sheriff’s office’s process for handling complaints against officers, which includes referral to the Internal Affairs Division. That division is “not in the chain of command and do not report to any employee who is under investigation.” McGovern said that such complaints can be handled in a variety of ways, and can be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office or another law enforcement agency, if appropriate. But if the “investigation discovers no misconduct, the investigation concludes.” McGovern said his decision not to release more information was based on protecting the alleged victim, as well as employees who may have been falsely accused.

“The sheriff’s office also wants to protect its employees who did nothing wrong other than get on the wrong side of an inmate, criminal defendant or other citizen,” McGovern said.

The city’s process

For the past several years, the Lawrence Police Department has denied similar open records requests by the Journal-World for internal affairs documents, also citing the personnel exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act.

The Lawrence police, however, provide the City Commission with summaries of internal complaint investigations twice per year, but that isn’t the case at the county, said County Commissioner Mike Gaughan. A Journal-World email request for comment on the case was “the first we’d heard of” the sexual assault allegations, Gaughan said.

When asked about the possibility of instituting a process for briefing county commissioners, like the city has, Gaughan said, “Some annual reporting would be consistent with the relationship we have” with the sheriff’s office.

Sgt. Steve Lewis, a sheriff’s office spokesman, said the office would be open to providing internal affairs case summaries to county commissioners if asked.

But requiring more information, or monitoring internal affairs investigations within the sheriff’s office, falls outside the powers of the County Commission, said Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator.

“Elected officials pretty much have full authority,” he said. Any decision to share information about internal affairs investigations “would be the sheriff’s call,” Weinaug said.

Though they may not have been briefed or consulted on internal affairs cases, Weinaug said his past experiences with the sheriff have shown that “he’s always dealt with these situations appropriately.”

But in cases of potential misconduct, law enforcement should provide the public with enough information to show the case was handled properly, said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

“You can’t do that based on the information you’ve been provided” in this case, Bunting said.

And there’s an inherent conflict of interest when agencies investigate misconduct within their own organization, said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a nonprofit that advocates for a reduction of abuse within jails and prisons.

That’s why her organization advocates for referring sexual assault allegations to neutral third parties, such as a state attorney general’s office.

“In good models of oversight, it’s always an outside agency” that investigates abuse allegations against law enforcement, McFarlane said.