Kan. lawmakers advance law enforcement transparency bills
Kansas lawmakers advanced bills aimed at making officers' body camera footage more accessible and compiling data on the property seized by agencies
By John Hanna
TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators who are pushing to make law enforcement more transparent focused Wednesday on advancing bills aimed at making officers' body camera footage more accessible and compiling data on the property seized by agencies.
The state House gave first-round approval to bills on each subject that had bipartisan support and represented a compromise between law enforcement groups and advocates of more aggressive measures. House members expected to take another, final vote on each Thursday to determine whether they pass and go to the Senate.
Legislative leaders in both parties have said making Kansas more open is a top priority this year. Several high-profile fatal shootings by officers over the past six months have highlighted inconsistent policies on how agencies handle footage, and some lawmakers have been interested in rewriting laws on property seizures following a critical 2016 state audit.
The body camera footage bill would require agencies to make it available to the subjects of the video or, in the case of a fatal shooting, to their families and attorneys, within 20 days of a request. The property-seizure bill would require the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to compile data on what gets seized and to monitor whether reports from law enforcement agencies are accurate.
Supporters of both bills acknowledged that they were looking for relatively easy legislative victories this year as a way of making progress on promoting openness.
"Kansas is a dark state," said state Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat who pushed a more aggressive bill on body camera footage and opening criminal investigation records. "This is one step forward to getting out of that, but we've still got a lot more steps to go."
In Alcala's hometown, two police officers fatally shot a 30-year-old man, Dominique White, outside of a park on Sept. 28, and the man's father was not able to view their body camera footage for almost three months, until he was legally declared the administrator of his son's estate. The bill would clarify that a parent of an adult and the family's attorney could view the footage.
The footage in White's death became public when the local district attorney played it during a news conference announcing that had concluded that the shooting was legally justified. In Olathe, footage from officers' August 23 shooting of an emotionally troubled 26-year-old woman with a gun became public in January after The Kansas City Star sued to obtain access to it.
Meanwhile, the property-seizure bill arose from a months-long study last year after lawmakers considered multiple proposals for limiting the ability of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to seize property from criminal suspects. Some lawmakers still don't think it goes far enough because it would not prevent property from being seized unless someone is convicted of a crime.
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican, called the two bills "good first steps" toward restoring public confidence in law enforcement and officers' work.
"I think our law enforcement officers by and large go out every day attempting to do the right thing and to be as transparent as they can be," Finch said.