Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said he would like to share more with the public — both in terms of information and footage from body cameras — but policies in place limit what he can do.
Ramsay said he wants a “comprehensive review of our video policies to make sure we’re up to national standards and best practices.”
The chief’s comments were made on a video posted to the Wichita Police Department’s Facebook page Wednesday night in which Ramsay discussed transparency.
Police officials have drawn criticism recently over their handling of a reported hit-and-run that allegedly involved an off-duty police officer. The FBI is now investigating the department’s internal investigation of Tiffany Dahlquist, who resigned from the department last month.
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Ramsay’s video about transparency had collected nearly 8,500 views less than a day after it was posted. Ramsay said the department has been “more transparent in providing information when an officer is arrested” than under previous chiefs.
While the department works hard to hire “the best and the brightest,” there are still “issues” from time to time, Ramsay said early in the eight-minute video.
“We hire standard-issue people,” Ramsay said. “When you put on the badge, you don’t undergo a metamorphosis.”
The department is guided by three rules, he said: The Kansas Open Records Act, union contracts and city policies.
“Those are the areas that we have to live within when we talk about employee issues,” he said.
After a man with an apparently Islamic name was handcuffed at a bank and taken downtown for questioning when he tried to deposit a $151,000 check in September, the police department was criticized for not releasing body camera video of the incident.
Emprise Bank employees initially believed the check presented by Sattar Ali on Sept. 6 was a forgery and called police. After Ali and his wife and daughter were detained, police detectives later verified that the check was valid.
The Eagle made a public records request in September for footage from the body cameras of officers who responded. The police department at first approved The Eagle’s request, but said it would cost $441 for staff time, redactions and other measures to provide the video. The Eagle asked for further explanation of the charges and was then told by the city attorney that the request for the video was denied.
The Kansas Open Records Act requires that if a request is denied on the basis that it is a criminal investigation record, the agency denying the request “shall provide a written citation to the specific provisions...that necessitate closure of that public record.”
“I’m a huge proponent of body cameras and the value of the video that they produce,” Ramsay said.
But the language of the state law addressing the use of body camera video “allows for interpretation,” he said.
“I would like to see legislation that clearly lays out what is public and what is not,” Ramsay said. “This should not be left to local chiefs or local officials to decide.”
“Criminal investigation records” — which include audio and video recordings made by body and vehicle cameras — are among those not required to be open, under the Kansas Open Records Act.
But that doesn’t mean they are prohibited, said Max Kautsch, a media attorney based in Lawrence who handles the legal hotline for the Kansas Press Association.
“KORA doesn't expressly prohibit the release of any public record,” Kautsch said in an e-mail response to questions. “It's entirely up to the agency whether or not to invoke the exemption.”
One of the exemptions is if disclosing the record would interfere with any prospective law enforcement action, criminal investigation or prosecution.
Ramsay said he doesn’t believe body camera footage should be available to “just anybody.”
“In body camera footage, we catch people at the worst moments of their life,” Ramsay said. “Should that be available to neighbors, ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends?”
But Ramsay said he wants to be able to release footage more often.
“I do believe, on high-profile incidents where the community has concerns, that that should be public,” he said. “Right now, policies do not allow for that.”
In January, the city will launch a citizen review board overseeing the police department. Ramsay said he welcomes the creation of the review board, saying it’s an effort to be more transparent.
“I welcome public scrutiny,” he said. “I welcome people to poke, prod, pull back layers and ask questions because it makes us better.”
The review board won’t have the authority to discipline officers, but it can make recommendations related to policy, training and operations.
“This review board will make us stronger,” Ramsay said.