Kansas considers more disclosure on officer-involved deaths
Topeka — Kansas lawmakers are considering measures that would require the public disclosure of information from investigations when a law enforcement officer kills someone and isn’t charged with a crime over the death.
But law enforcement officials expressed strong reservations about two disclosure bills during a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. Critics said requiring disclosure could endanger witnesses or make them less likely to cooperate fully and could allow private or embarrassing information about the deceased or their families to circulate.
The bills were inspired by the fatal shooting by a police officer of a Kansas City-area teenager in January 2018 as he backed a minivan out of his family’s garage. The incident also prompted a federal lawsuit and a $2.3 million settlement and Sheila Albers, of Overland Park, the teenager’s mother, testified that she and her husband still haven’t seen most of the information from the investigation into their son’s death.
“My husband and I find it grossly unacceptable that we have not seen any of the material used to clear the officer who shot my son,” she said.
One bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. David Benson, of Overland Park, would require investigators who review an officer-involved death to make their report public if the local prosecutor declines to file charges against the officer. The report could be edited to withhold some names, addresses and personal information.
Law enforcement officials said the bill could allow the disclosure of sensitive, misleading or false information gathered during an investigation of a death involving an officer.
“Witnesses are much less likely to provide true and accurate statements when they believe they’ll be publicly identified,” said Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Kirk Thompson.
The other bill, sponsored by Republican Reps. Chris Croft, of Overland Park, and John Resman, of Olathe, would require the prosecutor to release a report summarizing the investigation in such cases, but only after the family of the person killed has been given a chance to read it.
Law enforcement officials had less heartburn with the measure but suggested that a partial disclosure of only a summary would not build public trust.
“Both of them are trying to put a cookie-cutter approach to very dynamic situations,” said Bel Aire Police Chief Darrell Atteberry.
In Overland Park, 17-year-old John Albers was killed after officers responded to a report that he was making suicidal comments on social media. Dashcam police video showed the minivan slowly backing out when two shots are fired from the side, and then whipping around backward toward the house again as an officer fired 11 more times.
The officer resigned after the shooting, but prosecutors declined to file charges. The city did not acknowledge wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement of the federal lawsuit.
Sheila Albers told the committee that a lack of public disclosure about her son’s case “retraumatized the community.” She was joined in advocating Benson’s bill by open government groups.
“The reason we’re here is disclosure. It is building public trust in the law enforcement agencies we have,” Benson said.