Crime & Courts

Review board recommends policy of releasing police officer names in ‘critical incidents’

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay on transparency concerns

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Wichita police could release the names of officers involved in “critical incidents” if the chief adopts a recommendation made by a review board.

The Citizen Review Board unanimously recommended on Thursday that Chief Gordon Ramsay develop a policy under which names of officers involved in “critical incidents” would be released in a timely manner. But the recommended policy would give the chief discretion to not release identities when there is a public safety or security concern.

The board did not define “critical incidents” and left the chief to determine what would be a timely manner.

As a practice, the department generally has not released names in officer-involved shooting and other critical incidents, police Capt. Doug Nolte said.

“The conversation is probably due because in the last couple of incidents we’ve had there has been a significant focus on releasing officer names,” Nolte said.

Of the 27 major city police departments who responded to a survey from Wichita police, 38 percent had a written policy on releasing officer names. But most of the departments without a written policy said they still release officer names, typically within a specified number of hours.

“Keeping names confidential can be very problematic,” said board chairman Jay Fowler, a trial lawyer. “Then you have the problem with everybody really knows the name, but the department is not saying it or confirming it, so you potential disinformation, and you have a bigger problem with a transparency issue.”

“The last case, the officer showed his face in court, we all figured out who it was, and it was disclosed publicly through the news media,” said board member Tonja Sowder, a business executive. “It would be much better and much better PR for the police department if it came from them.”

After a Wichita police officer shot and killed Andrew Finch on Dec. 28 in what was determined to be a fake 911 swatting call, the department did not identify who fired the shot.

It wasn’t until five months later when Officer Justin Rapp testified in a court hearing for alleged swatter Tyler Barriss that the name of the police officer was made public.

“Those people that want the name, why do they want them?” asked board alternate Sharon Alislieger, a retired librarian. “Just because they’re nosy, or do they feel that there’s an advantage to knowing who did it?”

“The feedback that I get is, ‘When victims of crime are victimized, their names are put out there, suspect names are out there, what is the rationale behind keeping law enforcement name hidden?’ that’s what I hear a lot of,” Nolte replied. “On the flip side of it there are people who say there are legit officer safety issues that could come up. The question then is every situation an officer safety situation? Is there room to protect officer safety and still release a name?”

Board alternate Janet Miller, a former city council member, said she thinks there are more threats against officers when names aren’t released.

“You did it or I did it, who cares,” Alislieger said. “Was it a good or bad action, we’ll find out eventually. That’s why I ask what is the rush to get the name other than everybody is nosy and they want to know who did it?”

“I think it’s just for transparency,” replied board member Shaun Rojas, a non-profit executive.

Many board members said there are times when the chief should be allowed to exercise discretion in whether or not to release an officer’s name.

“There are some cases where there should be some officer protection, and that might not be the most popular thing for me to say,” Sowder said.

Police asked for more direction in a recommended policy than simply providing the chief with discretion in releasing names.

“You gotta be careful, you don’t want to just advocate discretion,” Nolte said. “Discretion is good, but more guidance in when we should release versus when we should not, that’s probably what’s at issue here, and this group tackling this kind of gives us a direction to go.”

Miller said the default policy should be to always release names, unless if the chief can articulate an extenuating circumstance. The chief has the final authority in creating new policies, Nolte said.

It is unclear whether the release of names is a contractual issue with the police union, Nolte said. It is not addressed in the current contract.

But union officials and police have discussed how it is the department’s practice to not release names, so any change to that practice could face challenges from the union, Nolte said. The union generally wants to protect officer identities, he said.

There have been cases other than the swatting incident where police did not identify involved officers.

Two days after the swatting shooting, a police officer shot at a dog and a bullet fragment hit a girl in her face. A source told an Eagle reporter about a month later that Officer Dexter Betts had been fired in connection to the shooting. A police response to a Kansas Open Records Act request confirmed that Betts’ employment ended the same day the source said he was fired.

In January, a current Wichita police officer and a former officer were indicted as part of a federal illegal gambling probe. Police said two former employees were indicted without providing their names.

In March, police said a recruit was no longer employed by the department after he was arrested during a domestic violence incident. He was not identified.

Police have identified officers in other cases, but not immediately.

It wasn’t until charges were filed against Capt. Kevin Mears that Wichita police identified him as the employee involved in an Augusta battery case in January. A week earlier, a Facebook video showed Mears involved in an altercation with a girl referee at a youth basketball game.

After officers Jax Rutledge and Josh Price were arrested in separate incidents in October, they were identified by police in January after they were charged with crimes.

Over a month after Officer Samuel Dugo was charged with a felony when he crashed while speeding to a 911 call, Wichita police sent out a news release saying that he had been put on unpaid leave. He was responding to a reported burglary in March, but was driving 79 mph in a 30 mph zone without using his emergency lights or sirens when he crashed into a pickup, officials said.

Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay addresses recent events within the Wichita Police Department, including a federal gambling investigation involving a Wichita officers ( Video by Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle/Jan. 19, 2018)

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