Politics & Government

House bill to stop anonymous complaints against police draws criticism

Law officers joined the NAACP on Tuesday in opposing a House bill that would eliminate anonymous complaints against police officers and dramatically change the way law enforcement agencies conduct internal investigations into officer misconduct.

House Bill 2698 would require anyone submitting a complaint against a law enforcement officer to sign an affidavit. They could be held civilly and criminally liable if a complaint is determined to be false.

The bill would prohibit other law enforcement agencies from conducting their own investigations if a complaint has already been ruled false by the original agency.

The committee took no action on the bill.

Current law requires law enforcement agencies to review all complaints against officers, including anonymous ones, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said in his testimony to the House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee.

Easter and law enforcement leaders from Johnson and Riley counties said the bill would hamper their ability to conduct internal investigations and would increase the public’s distrust of police.

The bill would give police officers a copy of complaints filed against them and enable officers to review video and other evidence against them before they were interviewed by investigators.

“The sheriff’s office investigates numerous criminal cases, and we do not provide these materials to the interviewee prior the interview, thus I do not believe in providing deputies with evidence prior to the interview on alleged misconduct,” Easter said.

The only person to speak on behalf of the bill was Sean McCauley, an attorney who represents both the Kansas State Troopers Association and the Kansas chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“We’re not seeking to protect bad cops. We’re seeking to protect good cops from bad complaints,” McCauley said.

He contended the bill would not hamper police agencies in conducting internal investigations.

“I don’t see the problem with being able to review a cold video of what happened before you give a statement of an innocuous, potentially innocuous traffic stop that happened two years ago,” he said.

He also dismissed concerns of opponents that the bill would discourage citizens from coming forward against real cases of misconduct. McCauley said if he was legitimately wronged by a police officer, he would have no problem signing his name to a complaint.

But Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Shawnee, raised concerns that someone who already feels wronged by a law enforcement agency could be intimidated from filing a complaint.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, pressed McCauley on how many false complaints are filed. He made a claim that as many as 30 percent of complaints are false.

Easter said of the 152 complaints filed with the sheriff’s office last year, only two were determined to be false and that the people who filed those complaints are already being prosecuted under current law for filing false police reports.

Both Easter and McCauley distinguished between false complaints and complaints determined to be unfounded, meaning they lack enough evidence to be verified.

Tammie Lord, chief legal counsel of the Kansas Highway Patrol, said the bill was vague and did not make that distinction clear.

Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, the committee’s chair, asked both Easter and Lord if the bill could be salvaged in any way to address their concerns. Both told him it could not.

Several opponents, including the Kansas chapter of the NAACP, raised concerns that the bill targets African-Americans.

The bill would increase distrust between police and minority communities, said Brendon Fox, a Wichita resident whose complaint against the Wichita Police Department for racial profiling is being investigated by the Kansas Human Rights Commission.

“Officers have absolute power in the streets. This absolute power emboldens the officer and diminishes the citizen,” said Fox, who was a police officer for nine years but now works as an administrator at Southwestern College.

“This bill would exacerbate this power disparity,” Fox said.