Wichita police chief Gordon Ramsay said this week that his department has “nothing to hide.” He said he wants to build community trust through transparency.
Those are great sound bites.
Too bad Ramsay doesn’t back them up with action more frequently.
Let’s begin with the events of this week.
On Thursday evening, The Wichita Eagle/Kansas.com published a story online about a hit-and-run collision that happened on Sept. 11, 2016.
Tiffany Dahlquist, an off-duty Wichita police officer, was suspected of causing the collision and leaving the scene, according to public records. It was also suspected that she had been drinking, according to a sworn statement from a former internal affairs investigator.
The Eagle obtained police and Kansas Department of Transportation reports on the collision. In one report, Dahlquist was identified as the driver of the car that left the scene. Dahlquist herself filled out that report the day after the collision, writing, “I was informed I hit a vehicle.”
A later report, however, lists the driver of the car that left the scene as unknown. It says Dahlquist’s name was removed “Per Det. Amy.” There is a Detective Mike Amy assigned to the department’s Professional Standards Bureau, which investigates possible misconduct by staff members.
Detective Lance Oldridge, an internal affairs investigator assigned to determine what happened, said in a deposition provided in an unrelated lawsuit, that he “felt there was misconduct being covered up.”
A police department spokesman read a five-paragraph statement about The Eagle’s story at a news conference Friday.
The statement said the allegations in the article “are based on a flawed premise and are inaccurate.”
The spokesman wouldn’t say what was inaccurate or what the flawed premise was. He wouldn’t explain why the reports on the collision were changed to remove Dahlquist’s name.
If Ramsay has nothing to hide and wants to build public trust through transparency, he should answer those questions. As it is, his department’s actions only serve to erode public trust and an atmosphere of transparency.
Here’s another example where the city’s actions don’t jibe with Ramsay’s statements:
Wichita patrol officers were outfitted with body cameras by 2016, supposedly another measure to help build trust and transparency.
The Eagle made a public records request in September for footage from the body cameras of officers who responded to a report of a customer with a fraudulent check at an Emprise Bank branch on Sept. 6. The check was later determined to be legitimate, but only after the customer was handcuffed, and he and his family were detained. The customer, Sattar Ali, is from Iraq. He believes he was racially profiled. The bank and the police department said he was not. The Eagle believed the body camera video might provide more information about what happened.
The police department at first approved The Eagle’s request for the footage, 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.
Again, actions failed to match Ramsay’s words about trust and transparency.
In the statement this week regarding The Eagle’s story on the hit-and-run collision, the department’s spokesman noted that the City Council had approved a new citizen review board, which “will allow civilian oversight into cases of alleged police misconduct.”
But a closer look at how that board will operate shows it to be anything by publicly transparent. The board will operate under a cloak of secrecy. The outcomes of internal investigations will not be shared with the public.
If Ramsay truly wants to build trust and be transparent, he should provide details when officers’ actions are called into question.
He should release reports to the public on internal investigations when they are complete.
He should reevaluate plans for the citizen review board to make its work more public.
To his credit, Ramsay has made some strides toward building public trust since he arrived in Wichita in January 2016. Most notable was his successful effort to channel what was planned as a protest into a community picnic that promoted trust between the department and a diverse group of people.
But as a whole, the actions of the city and the police department fall far short of Ramsay’s words about public trust and transparency. Wichita deserves better.