Editorial: Open up our government
Kansas legislators are getting serious about transparency in government.
This week, state Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, introduced House Bill 2571, which would amend the Kansas Open Records Act to require the release of police body camera video in specific cases such as fatal shootings, and to define when a law enforcement investigation is no longer active, thus making records from the investigation open to public inspection.
Recent incidents underscore the need for the changes.
Under current law, police body camera video is defined as a criminal investigation record, one of the documents specifically exempted from the Kansas Open Records Act.
Under Alcala’s bill, police body camera video would still be a criminal investigation record, but the bill would require video to be released when a law enforcement officer discharges a firearm in the course of performing duties other than training or when the use of force by a law enforcement officer results in great bodily harm or death.
Such a law would have compelled Topeka police to release the video footage of the fatal police shooting of Dominique White last fall in Topeka. White was shot in the back and police initially refused to release the video, prompting protests from White’s family and others. In December, after the district attorney’s office determined the shooting was justified, the video was released. It showed that White had a handgun on him and apparently reached toward it while running from police.
House Bill 2571 also changes the law so that “active” criminal investigation records are exempt from the Open Records Act, and defines when an investigation becomes inactive, including when law enforcement decides to stop pursuing the case, when the statute of limitations expires or when 30 years passes since the crime allegedly occurred.
The law would compel the release of investigation records in the disappearance of Randy Leach, who left his Linwood home in 1988 to attend a high school graduation party in Leavenworth County and hasn’t been heard from since. His parents, Harold and Alberta Leach, have sought release of the records for years, but the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Department has refused, arguing the case is still open.
The Leaches filed a lawsuit to compel the records’ release, but Leavenworth County District Court Judge David King ruled that current law gives law enforcement the right to seal records for an indefinite period.
“The limitations on the disclosure of criminal investigation records is not dependent on how old the investigation is or whether the case remains unresolved or not,” King said. “It is not dependent on law enforcement showing a certain level of continued ongoing investigation activity in the case.”
It’s understandable that active investigative records are withheld from public view to ensure an investigation isn’t compromised or that informants or others are not placed in harm’s way. But shielding such records indefinitely violates the public trust and gives law enforcement the means to escape accountability when mistakes are made.
House Bill 2571 is a reasonable compromise between the interests of law enforcement and the public. It should be approved.