Editorial: Police should release video

The September shooting of a man by Topeka police underscores the problem created by the unrivaled lack of transparency in Kansas when it comes to law enforcement records.

A Topeka police officer shot and killed Dominique White, who is black, during an incident on Sept. 28 at Ripley Park in Topeka. Police say White resisted arrest, tried to flee and was reaching for a gun in his pocket when police shot and killed him. Topeka police reported that White was shot in the chest; his death certificate indicates he was shot in the back. The Lawrence Police Department is investigating.

To the growing frustration of White’s family and many in the Topeka community, that’s the extent of the information available. Neither the Topeka Police nor Lawrence Police are offering much more.

Topeka police were wearing body cameras during the shooting. One would think Topeka Police would make the video public, sharing it as widely as possible, to support what they say happened.

Instead, Topeka police have gone to great lengths to keep the video private. After initially agreeing to show the video to White’s parents, the police have reversed course, saying Kansas law only requires them to share the video with White’s children. White has four children, ages 3 to 13.

Police are right, thanks to a bungled law Kansas legislators approved last year. That law designates police videos as criminal investigation records, which are exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act. The new law did make videos available to a limited number of individuals: the subject of the video, parents when the subject of the video is younger than 18, an attorney for the subject of the video or the subject’s heirs when the subject is deceased.

So, Topeka police, who have the discretion to share the video with anyone they choose, have decided that the right approach is to allow White’s four children to watch their dad being shot without other family members present.

The law wasn’t intended to be this way. State Sen. David Haley introduced a bill in 2015 that would have made body cameras standard for all police departments and made the footage a matter of public record. Haley was seeking transparency, for the benefit of law enforcement as well as the public. But law enforcement lobbied against the bill, and by the time legislation was approved last year, it looked nothing like what Haley proposed.

That happens a lot in Topeka. It’s why Kansas was the last state in the country to open search affidavits to public inspection, and then only after a number of loopholes were added. It’s why law enforcement officer records are exempted from open records law. It’s why a Linwood couple still can’t get copies of the police records related to the disappearance of their son 30 years ago.

The Kansas Legislature does law enforcement no favors by always bowing to pressure to keep police records secret. Because every time police handle a case like Dominique White’s death the way Topeka police have, the public can’t help but wonder “what have they got to hide?”