Brianna Childers
KU Statehouse Wire Service
For nearly three months, Dominique White’s family was denied access to body camera footage that was taken when White was shot and killed by a Topeka police officer.
“For 11 weeks, our family should’ve been grieving, instead we were still looking for answers, still trying to comprehend why,” said Heather Joyce, White’s sister-in-law. “I’m here today because I don’t want another family to go through what we are going through. Part of preventing that is regulating access to body cam footage.”
Joyce spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Feb. 13 in support of a proposed bill that would change the amount of time it takes for body camera footage to be released. If requested, law enforcement agencies would have 24 hours to release the footage to the subject of the recording, parents, a guardian or an attorney. This bill adds next of kin to the list of people allowed to obtain the footage.
The bill also requires law enforcement to release the footage in 30 days if the video depicts a firearm discharge by a law enforcement officer.
Senate Bill 360 would also no longer require a written request. Additionally, law enforcement would be required to release the audio or video from a body or vehicle camera within five days if the officer involved used a firearm or force that caused bodily harm or death.
Kansas Association of Broadcasters President Kent Cornish said the bill should not be thought of as the media versus law enforcement. The public has the right to know what happens in situations where law enforcement is involved in the shooting of a citizen.
“Body cameras should serve both citizens and law enforcement,” Cornish said. “If law enforcement withholds video, the public is likely to interpret this as betraying a principal point of the cameras.”
Opponents who spoke during the hearing disagreed with the time elements in the bill, including releasing a video within 24 hours and 30 days if the video depicts a firearm discharge.
Johnson County Sherriff’s Lobbyist Greg Smith asked legislators to consider what camera they are more concerned about during a hearing: the camera recording the meeting or the cameras brought into the room by news stations.
Smith said every camera is capturing a different perspective of what is occurring during a given moment.
“Perspective matters,” Smith said. “Body cameras don’t have the same perspective as the officer. They don’t see things the same way the officer does. If you are looking for this to be some panacea to fix community-law enforcement relations, this is not the bill.”
Perry police officer Ramon Gonzalez said, if passed, the bill will impact 435 law enforcement agencies in Kansas.
“Seventy percent of those agencies have fewer than 10 officers,” Gonzalez said. “Fifty percent have five officers or less.”
Gonzalez said the 24-hour time requirement is too much for small agencies who don’t have clerical help, requiring officers to do the work necessary for releasing a video, including redaction, reviewing the footage and copying the footage.
He also opposed the elimination of a written request, saying it would result in a lack of clarity and confusion as to who requested the video and when the request was made.
Sen. Rick Willborn, (R-McPherson) said the time elements and some of the language in the bill still need to be worked out before the bill can be passed.
“No piece of legislation is ever perfect the first time through, and we want to do it right,” Willborn said. “The proponents have a valid reason to propose this bill. But you can’t throw caution to the wind, and I would like to have everyone come to the table and work out their differences.”
Brianna Childers is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism from Sedalia, Missouri.