Topeka On Sept. 28, 2017, Topeka resident Dominique White was shot and killed by police officers during an altercation near an east Topeka park.
For the next 11 weeks, his family pleaded for access to the video footage from police body cameras and vehicle cameras so they could learn more about what happened that day, only to be met with stiff resistance from police, city officials and the district attorney’s office.
“For this 11 weeks, our family should have been grieving,” Heather Joyce, White’s sister-in-law, told a Kansas Senate committee Tuesday. “Instead, we were still looking for answers, still trying to comprehend why.”
Joyce testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill that would provide greater public access to audio and video recordings from police body and vehicle cameras, especially in cases of officer-involved shootings.
Seated with her in the audience was White’s mother, Theresa Wynne. In addition, White’s step-mother, Molly White, submitted written testimony and was scheduled to appear personally at a separate House committee hearing on a similar bill later in the day.
Under current law, the only people allowed access to those recordings are the subjects of the recordings themselves, their parents if the subject is under 18, an attorney for the subject, or, in the event the subject is dead, then that person’s heir.
“For 11 weeks, our family was denied answers and access to body cameras worn by police officers that morning,” Joyce said. “After retaining an executor of estate, only one person, Dominique’s father, was granted access to view the body cam video. My father-in-law sat in a room and watched what transpired that morning. With no family support, he watched his son’s last living moments from police body cam video.”
Under Senate Bill 360, law enforcement agencies would be required to produce those records for the subject, close family members or attorneys within 24 hours of a request.
In addition, they would have to provide access to anyone requesting to view the recordings within 30 days of a request if the recording depicts an officer discharging his or her firearm or using physical force that results in great bodily harm or death to someone else.
In certain cases, they would be allowed to redact or distort portions of the recording, including the identity of an officer who is under internal investigation as a result of the incident. But once an investigation is completed, agencies would not be allowed to redact the officer’s identity.
And under no circumstances could they continue to redact that information longer than 270 days, even if the investigation is still continuing after that point.
Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, whose district includes the park where the Dominique White shooting occurred, said the city’s refusal to release the video of that incident caused damage to the Police Department’s relationship with the community.
“I personally witnessed the Topeka community on the edge of civil unrest, a lack of trust for law enforcement and a muted city council,” Alcala said.
“I watched a family and community lose trust in law enforcement, elected officials, and in our system,” he said.
Still, several law enforcement organizations spoke out against the bill, saying its passage could do more harm than good.
“If this bill becomes law, law enforcement agencies would be forced to disclose the video long before their criminal and/or administrative reviews are completed,” said Blaine Dryden, president of the Kansas State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. “Unquestionably, the disclosure with this much haste is not accompanied by any substantial factual context that a complete investigation provides.”
Ramon Gonzalez, Jr., of the Perry Police Department, said the bill would put an extreme burden on small law enforcement agencies, many of which, he said, have five or fewer officers on staff, including some who are only part-time.
“Having these issues in mind, the 24-hour requirement to have a video downloaded, reviewed, redacted, copied and ready is unrealistic,” he said. “Video redaction software is also unaffordable for most of our small agencies.”
And Greg Smith, a former Republican state senator who is now a special deputy with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, said many people have unrealistic expectations about what they can learn from police vehicle or body camera video.
“The use of cameras and dissemination of the video footage they generate are fraught with myths and misunderstandings,” Smith said. “Body cameras are not a panacea to community-law enforcement relations.”
Committee chairman Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, said at the end of the hearing that he believes the bill has merit. But he also said he believes it has several problems that should be worked out between the proponents and opponents of the bill.
But Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, a supporter of the bill, said the issue of providing access to police recordings has been around the Legislature for at least three years, and she said opponents of the measure have so far been reluctant to negotiate.
Meanwhile, a similar bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee, which held its own hearing later Tuesday afternoon.
Neither committee was expected to take immediate action, although lawmakers are facing a looming deadline to decide which bills they plan to act on this session.
That’s because Thursday, Feb. 22, is the deadline for most bills to pass out of their house of origin, unless Republican leaders in the House or Senate agree to exempt a bill from that deadline.
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