Wichita police chief Gordon Ramsay said many of the right things about transparency in a video on the department’s Facebook page Wednesday.
Police are guided by the Kansas Open Records Act, union contracts and city policies in terms of what can be made public, he said. Ramsay said he’s a proponent of body cameras and would like the Legislature to provide clarity on how body camera video can be made public.
But Ramsay’s statements incorrectly blame the Open Records Act and stand as evidence of the way government agencies across the state hide behind the law to maintain a cloak of secrecy rather than promote transparency.
It is also important to note that agency policies and contracts cannot supersede what the Open Records Act says should be made public.
The Open Records Act in no way prevents police agencies from releasing body camera video. It simply provides them circumstances when they can choose not to release video. And the reality is that police agencies generally choose not to release video, unless it would serve as a good public relations tool for the departments.
The same standard applies to records that might show how an internal investigation was handled or how a crime was investigated. The Open Records Act provides cover for agencies that don’t want to release such records, but it does not prevent them from releasing such information
A police agency committed to transparency could choose to release such records or body camera video because it’s the right thing to do.
Several questions posed to Ramsay in the Facebook video were in reference to Eagle coverage in October of an off-duty police officer who had been drinking and was suspected of causing a hit-and-run accident. An Eagle editorial later called into question a commitment to transparency by Ramsay when his spokesman criticized reporting in The Eagle’s story but wouldn’t say what they claimed was inaccurate.
A question about body-camera footage stemmed from a September incident at an Emprise Bank branch when an employee thought a customer tried to deposit a fraudulent $151,000 check. The check was determined to be legitimate only after the customer had been handcuffed and detained. The customer, who was born in Iraq, said he believed he had been racially profiled.
The city refused to release police body camera video of the incident to The Eagle, using a number of exemptions allowed in the Open Records Act: The video had not been shown publicly, agencies are only required to show the video to certain people, and they can withhold records that are part of a criminal investigation.
But, again, while police can use those exemptions as a shield when they legitimately apply, it is not against the law to make such video public. And in this case, the criminal investigation exemption doesn’t stand because it was determined no crime had been committed.
Ramsay shifted the blame on body camera footage to the legislature.
“I believe this is a legislative issue,” Ramsay said. “And the current law allows for interpretation, allows for attorneys to be involved. And it is not that clear what is public and what is not. I would like to see clarity provided by the Legislature that says this must be public and this isn’t.”
Ramsay is right to ask the Legislature for clarity in the Open Records Act. It should be strengthened so law enforcement legal teams can’t instruct their officers to fall back to a blanket defense for refusing to release documents.
That said, nothing prevents Wichita police from releasing video of many incidents. The Open Records Act is meant to make things more available to the public — not to be used as a barrier with its many exceptions. A change of philosophy is what’s needed.