Radley Balko: Keeping Kansas in the dark on police records

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

03/28/2014 6:20 PM

In Kansas, police agencies are not obligated to turn over documents related to search warrants, affidavits and internal investigations. In fact, such documents are pre-sumptively sealed. One has to persuade a judge to force the police to release them.

A Kansas couple, Robert and Addie Harte, spent more than $20,000 in legal fees trying to obtain documents that would explain why their home was raided by a SWAT team in 2012. (When they finally got the documents, they discovered that the police had mistaken loose-leaf tea in the couple’s trash for marijuana.) Another woman, Joy Biggs of Kansas City, Mo., has been unable to obtain information on why her sister died in a Sherman County jail cell.

This is one of the strictest such laws in the country. So state Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, introduced a bill that would make such records presumptively available. After a bill passed the Kansas House 113-10, the Senate Judiciary Committee watered it down by removing arrest records from the class of documents covered and putting more restrictions on public access to police records.

These amendments were added at the urging of prosecutors. The website of the committee chairman, Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, boasts that he works “tirelessly as a friend of law enforcement.” He certainly does – to the point of making it nearly impossible for people victimized by law enforcement to obtain accountability.

Supporters of the bill say that the amendments have rendered it mostly useless. Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said he won’t allow the legislation to come to the floor for a vote. Bruce did leave open the possibility of revisiting the bill if the House and Senate can iron out their differences about its scope.

Meanwhile, Kansas police agencies will continue to operate in the dark. No transparency. No accountability. In an e-mail to me, Addie Harte put her reaction rather succinctly: “I am disgusted.”

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