State law and written city policy say the Wichita Police Department can release the name of the officer who shot an unarmed man on his front porch during a “swatting” hoax in December.
But the city has no intention of doing so, following an unwritten rule that the names of officers involved in shootings are not released unless the officer is charged with a crime, which almost never happens.
Police Chief Gordon Ramsay and other leaders at City Hall say they are reluctant to release names in shootings because they want to protect their officers from threats and potential retaliation.
“Since I’ve been here, this hasn’t been an issue until the swatting incident,” Ramsay said. “As police chief, I’ve really got to balance transparency with the safety of officers and their families.”
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In the past, several names of officers involved in shootings have eventually been revealed in court when family members have sued the city, with no major repercussions.
And in many cases, the shootings involved criminal bad actors who engendered little sympathy from the public, outside a relatively small cadre of police critics.
But the call to release names in officer-involved shootings has gotten louder since the Dec. 28 shooting of Andrew Finch.
Finch, 28, was killed by a bullet from a police officer’s rifle during an incident of “swatting”– a hoax designed to provoke a special weapons and tactics (or SWAT) team response to a nonexistent incident. Tyler Barriss, 25, of Los Angeles, has been charged with making the bogus call reporting a make-believe murder and hostage situation that brought police to Finch’s door.
Activists question why Barriss’ name is public but the name of the officer who fired the shot isn’t. City officials have responded that Barriss has been charged with a crime, while the officer hasn’t.
But the Finch shooting has shaken public confidence in the department and prompted some to wonder if change is needed.
“I often associate with different activists that have tried to push for greater transparency in Wichita’s Police Department and the city government,” said Russell Fox, a Friends University professor who monitors local government and serves on the city’s bicycle-pedestrian advisory board. “While I admired what they were doing, I didn’t really think it was a pressing issue. I just didn’t see evidence of some corrupt culture of secrecy.
“And yet, you come to something like this where it’s very obvious that the police chief has the power to release names … and yet they fall back on this excuse of ‘Oh, this isn’t the way we do it; it would cause all sorts of problems if we do it.’ Where does this culture of silence come from? It just seems very strange to me.”
Finch’s family has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the police used excessive force and violated Finch’s rights.
Because they can’t get the names, the defendants in the suit are identified as the city of Wichita and “John Doe Police Officers 1-10.”
Law and policy
At a news conference a week after the Finch shooting, Ramsay said he couldn’t release the name of the officer involved without negotiating with the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the city’s officers.
“It’s important to know that the department has a long history of not releasing names of officers involved in shootings,” Ramsay said at the time. “Any change in that practice requires negotiation with the labor contract and will have to be negotiated if that’s the case, or a state law change would trump that.”
But The Eagle found that a state Supreme Court case protects the city’s ability to release the names. And a city policy that once barred the release of officers’ names has been changed to give Ramsay the option.
A crack in the wall around police names came in the 1998 case of Terry Fettke v. City of Wichita.
Fettke was a police officer who shot and killed Franchot “Corky” Mitchell in a gunfight in 1994. The district attorney ruled the shooting was justified, and it was undisputed that Mitchell had fired at Fettke and wounded his partner.
But questions were later raised by Mitchell’s family and the NAACP over whether Fettke continued shooting at Mitchell, who was hit by 16 shots, after he was down and no longer a threat.
Court documents say Fettke’s name was released to the news media, despite a city policy at the time that said “INFORMATION SHALL NOT BE RELEASED PERTAINING TO: (1) Names of officers involved in critical incidents (such as police shootings).”
Fettke sued the city for stress damages, alleging that the release of his name had violated city policy and subjected him to threats; that his wife had heard second-hand reports of threats against her; and that his children were taunted at school that their father was a murderer.
The Supreme Court ruled Wichita had “no independent duty not to release the officer’s name” and upheld a lower court ruling dismissing Fettke’s lawsuit.
Rick Stone, the police chief at the time of the shooting, testified that dealing with threats is “just part of that police officer’s duty,” the ruling said.
After the 1998 ruling, city policy was changed.
It now says officers’ names won’t be released “unless approved by the Chief of Police.”
Despite the written policy giving him discretion, Ramsay said it’s been so long since the city has released names that it would now require negotiations with the union.
“Not releasing officers’ names is a longstanding practice that goes back decades,” he said. “Changing that practice affects the working conditions of the officers and is subject to mandatory bargaining.”
It is not being bargained and probably won’t be anytime soon.
The city and union recently finished negotiating a new contract, which is scheduled to come before the City Council for approval Feb. 20.
Both Ramsay and City Manager Robert Layton confirmed that the draft contract contains no changes related to the handling of officer-involved shootings.
Ramsay said times have changed and so have the threats to police officers.
News of the Finch shooting spread across the country at the speed of the Internet. Ramsay said he himself has been threatened over it.
“I've received, recently, threats from people, including things like shooting my children and wishing bad things upon them,” he said. “And you know, society has changed and really, patience and stability have been lost. Along with that there’s a lack of respect and misunderstanding of due process.”
He said that’s borne out by the comments on some of the Facebook pages where police critics have disclosed the name of an officer who they believe shot Finch.
“If you read those Facebook posts, you’ll see some serious comments about police officers and what should be done to them and their families,” Ramsay said. “We’ve lost civility.
“When an officer’s life or their family’s lives are endangered, my responsibility is to ensure their safety. I take that responsibility seriously.”
Fraternal Order of Police officials did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.
In response to Eagle inquiries, the department provided a written statement by City Attorney Jennifer Magana:
“The City continues to regard the release of the names of officers pending completion of the criminal investigation to be inconsistent with its practice in other criminal investigations, to potentially jeopardize the security of officers and their families, and to potentially result in unfortunate interactions between the officer and some citizens. If criminal charges do not result, the names of officers involved remain part of criminal investigations records which are not subject to mandatory disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.”
Kansas law gives police and government officials broader discretion to withhold information than other states.
For example, in California, officers’ names are routinely released in shootings unless the department can articulate a specific reason not to, such as blowing the cover of an undercover officer.
The California Supreme Court in 2014 ruled blanket bans on releasing officers’ names violated the Brown Act, the state’s open records law.
“The public’s interest in the conduct of its peace officers is particularly great because such shootings often lead to severe injury or death,” the court ruling said. “Here, therefore, in weighing the competing interests, the balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure and against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved.”
In Wichita, activists and critics of the Police Department say they are certain they know the name of the officer who fired the shot that killed Finch.
They are so sure that they’ve shared that name widely on social networks and at the City Council podium. They’ve even spelled it out with red plastic cups stuck in the chain-link fencing over the Kellogg Freeway.
They’ve also posted on Facebook that the officer they identified has been working off-duty, in full police uniform, providing security at a Wichita Walmart store.
The officer is currently working and on desk duty with the police department, spokesman Charley Davidson said.
Kathy Camden said she originally signed up to speak at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to talk about recycling and renewable energy, but was moved to talk about the Finch shooting because she felt it was a more pressing issue.
In the meeting, she delivered a fiery speech calling for Ramsay to be fired and the officer to be fired and prosecuted.
“We are demanding justice, demanding it for Andrew and for all the other victims in our community whose lives have been taken by a uniform with no name and no consequence,” she said.
Camden told the council the city hired Ramsay to make things better, but he’s made them worse.
“We are scared of those who are supposed to protect us, we are angry that our questions are being ignored and that our concerns are not being acknowledged,” she said. “We are frustrated with the lack of competency, training and transparency of those who are more concerned with avoiding liability than facing accountability.”
Camden said she thinks fears of violent retaliation are overblown.
“I think that’s an utterly ridiculous excuse, just another cover-up,” she said “I don’t know anybody who would do anything to anyone physically violent.”
She said there’s a difference between protecting an officer from physical retaliation, which police can and should do, and covering for officers who make bad decisions in the field.
“They’re not told — I hope not — in training, ‘Well, if you shoot someone, don’t worry because we’re never going to tell anybody your name and you can go into hiding and you can keep working and getting paid.’”
The council isn’t much help, she said.
“What we’re told is ‘Contact your council members, contact Chief Ramsay,’” she said. “So we address City Council every week. We tell them, we don’t hear anything back. There’s usually never questions, there’s no answers, there’s nothing that gets done.”
There’s a division of opinion on the City Council about how to proceed.
Council member Jeff Blubaugh said the city should establish rules governing the release of names and then follow them.
“My personal opinion is, I simply want consistency with our policies and principles,” he said.
Council member Cindy Claycomb said she’d been told there wasn’t anything in the Fraternal Order of Police contract that would bar the department from releasing the officer’s name, but she thinks the city should hold off doing that for now.
“It’s easy for people to stand up and say this officer is guilty of whatever, all these bad things that they are saying about him,” she said. “But really, none of us were at that incident. There’s an investigation going on and that takes time.”
Council member Brandon Johnson said he understands the chief’s concern for officer safety, but also thinks the council should start a community conversation to address the concerns of Camden and others like her.
“At the end of the day, the government serves the people,” he said. “What they want, we should be doing, or at least be open to hearing it.”
As for releasing officer names in shootings, “We should be doing that, or at least have a better reason as to why we’re not,” he said.
Mayor Jeff Longwell acknowledged the chief could release the name, but said he will defer to Ramsay’s judgment and that of other staff members.
“If they think that it’s unwise to release the name, I’m going to honor that,” he said.
Longwell said he was unaware that an officer’s name has been spread widely on social media and spelled out over the freeway.
“That could potentially change the conversation we’re having about how do we ensure that everyone’s safe in this community,” he said.