The Wichita Eagle/Kansas.com filed a lawsuit Friday that says city officials didn’t follow the Kansas Open Records Act when they denied the news organization access to police body-camera footage in two cases.
The petition, filed in Sedgwick County District Court, says representatives from the Wichita Police Department and City of Wichita denied the newspaper’s record requests without basis in October.
Steve Coffman, editor of The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com., said he is hopeful the lawsuit will bring clarity to the debate over police body-camera footage.
“The Kansas Open Records Act contains provisions for the release of police body-camera footage, but we believe the law has been widely misinterpreted to, in fact, prevent the release of footage in most circumstances,” Coffman said. “In reality, law enforcement agencies in Kansas only release body-camera footage when doing so promotes a positive image of the agencies.”
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The Eagle is filing the suit in cooperation with its sister news organization, The Kansas City Star, which recently published a series of stories about the lack of transparency in Kansas government.
“Police departments have done a public service with the release of body-cam footage in cases around the country,” said Mike Fannin, The Star’s editor. “Yet in Kansas, the few videos released are only what the police want the public to see. We believe Kansans deserve full transparency.”
When asked for comment, City Attorney Jennifer Magana said “The City does not comment on pending litigation.”
On Sept. 15, Eagle reporter Amy Renee Leiker requested body camera footage from a case in which an Iraqi man was handcuffed before he, his wife and 15-year-old daughter were detained and questioned by Wichita officers after the man tried to deposit a $151,000 check at Emprise Bank, 2140 N. Woodlawn, on Sept. 6.
The check was later determined to be legitimate, and the man said he believed he was racially profiled, which the bank and police denied. He and his family were released without criminal charges.
The city initially approved Leiker’s request for the video footage, pending several redactions. The city gave The Eagle an invoice for $441 to fill the request, which included $350 for time spent to redact portions of the footage.
After Leiker asked what the department anticipated redacting and why it would cost that much, she was told by the city that it was required to redact information about juveniles, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.
Leiker later received an email from Wichita’s director of law, Jennifer Magana, denying the request entirely, the lawsuit says.
Magana denied the request on three grounds, saying the footage did not have to be released because it was not shown at a public government meeting, it was a record of a criminal investigation and the release was only authorized to a limited list of people.
Magana later cited only one reason for the denial after a letter of inquiry from The Eagle’s attorney, Lyndon Vix. Magana said then that the city was not required to produce copies of videotape.
The Open Records Act does not prevent the disclosure of the footage, the lawsuit says.
A month after Leiker’s request, Eagle reporter Tim Potter requested to view body camera footage from a case involving former Wichita police officer Tiffany Dahlquist, who was alleged to have been involved in a hit-and-run accident while off duty after she allegedly had been drinking.
On Oct. 17, the lawsuit says, Wichita police Capt. Ann Hatter denied Potter’s request because the footage was “considered criminal investigation records” and because the Open Records Act specifies only certain people can have access to body-camera footage.
However, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said he doesn’t plan to pursue charges in the case. Hatter’s denial letter didn’t identify any law enforcement action, criminal investigation or prosecution that would be interfered with if the footage was released, the lawsuit says.
Also, the Open Records Act does not prevent disclosure of footage to people beyond those mentioned in the law, according to the lawsuit.
The Eagle is requesting the city comply with the Open Records Act and provide the requested body-camera footage.