Many questions remain about the Oct. 6 death of Steven Myers in Barber County, beyond the fact that he was killed by a beanbag shotgun round fired by the county’s undersheriff.
Some answers have been a little easier to come by because of the decision by the Barber County sheriff to release videos of the incident to media that requested the body-camera footage under the Kansas Open Records Act.
Barber County, unlike most other Kansas law-enforcement agencies, decided not to lean on an exemption in the open records act that could allow it to keep body-camera footage hidden under the blanket that it would “interfere with a criminal investigation.” It’s a workaround that’s much too broad in our state, keeping details of investigations away from the public and those involved in cases.
Six videos from Barber County sheriff’s officers were released to The Eagle on Dec. 20 by the lawyer for sheriff Lonnie Small. Though the video doesn’t provide a clear view of undersheriff Virgil “Dusty” Brewer shooting Myers – and Brewer was the only officer not wearing a body camera – it does show Myers falling forward to the ground after a shot is heard.
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Small pieces of evidence from the video are big reasons why making them public is important. For example, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said Myers “did not comply with all verbal commands given by deputies” before he was shot. Yet different officers can be heard shouting for Myers to get his hands up and to get down on the ground.
Let’s hope other law-enforcement agencies are watching. The transparency in Barber County should be a signal to the city of Wichita that its refusal to release information in two recent cases is nowhere near the transparency advocated by its chief, Gordon Ramsay.
The first was the Sept. 6 incident at an Emprise Bank branch, when an Iraqi-American man tried to deposit a $151,000 check. The check could not be authenticated and bank officials called police. Sattar Ali, his wife and daughter were detained while detectives verified the check. Body-camera footage from the officers on the scene has never been released – though police approved Sedgwick County releasing the 911 call from the bank days after the incident.
The second Wichita police incident was from October, when the department refused to explain why a police report was changed for a hit-and-run accident allegedly involving an officer. An early report listed now-former officer Tiffany Dahlquist as the driver, but a later report listed the driver as unknown.
The Barber County sheriff’s videos are not easy to watch. They show a husband and father being killed when, according to his family’s lawyer, he held no weapon and was wounded by a “less-lethal” weapon. But the release is an important step by the sheriff and the county in being transparent about the incident and acknowledging the state’s open-records law should not prevent the release of information for public knowledge and evaluation.
Other agencies should take note. The Legislature can tighten up open-records exceptions, too, beginning in two weeks.