KSN Investigates: Police reform

KSN Investigates

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Will lawmakers pass police reform? A lot of people, both in Kansas and across the U.S., are calling for change after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May.

We reached out to several Kansas lawmakers over the span of about one month to get their take on police reform. Many of them never got back to us. But others did and agreed to on-camera interviews with KSN.

One suggestion is a public list or database that includes complaints against members of law enforcement.

“I think that in the end, it will establish better public confidence in law enforcement,” said Representative John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “I think that citizens are intelligent enough to know that just because somebody filed a complaint against a law enforcement officer doesn’t necessarily mean the officer did anything wrong.”

He is calling for ways to make police departments “more professional,” as he put it, by recruiting people from different professional backgrounds.

He said it is not going to be fixed overnight.

“We also have placed burdens and responsibilities on law enforcement far beyond what they once had,” Carmichael said. “We expect them to be the mental health counselor when we don’t properly fund state hospitals and mental health services. We expect them to be the riot police on the occasions where there are public disruptions.”

Under Kansas law, certain records are not required to be open. The state treats complaints against officers like personnel files. That means they’re protected from public disclosure.

“What the state could do is put more money into training on a regular basis and lift the standards a little bit more but also body cameras,” said Representative Jan Kessinger, R-Overland Park. “That’s a delicate balance because you’ve got, as a personnel matter, those files are going to be kept private, but then as a public service and you know, and a public safety issue, we need to have those exposed as if in fact, someone has been found to be overly aggressive.”

Kessinger also agrees there needs to be a database listing excessive force complaints. He feels it will help departments with background checks during the hiring process to see if any officer ever lost his or her badge, also known as decertification. For example, Kessinger wants to make sure, in that situation, an officer who lost his or her badge in Missouri, can’t come over and work in law enforcement in Kansas.

“I think whatever we need to do to make it more transparent, I support that,” said Representative KC Ohaebosim, D-Wichita. “I know there’s going to be issues about privacy, having people’s names out, but again we’re dealing with law enforcement, I think the public should have a right to know in terms of who has used excessive force.”

While state lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle wouldn’t commit to writing or sponsoring police reform bills next legislative session, those we interviewed seem to agree our state needs more transparency when it comes to officers who are determined to have used excessive force.

“I think that’s part of what, as we looked at this, is making sure that we provide more transparency. When we look at the Justice Act that, you know, the House companion bill with Senator (Tim) Scott’s bill, is looking at how do we provide that transparency,” said Congressman Ron Estes, R-Kansas 4th District.

There are bills in both the U.S. House and Senate that look to address police reform. However, it appears unlikely they’ll pass both chambers in their current forms. Some of the disagreements surround mandatory reporting for use of force, abolishing no-knock warrants and chokeholds, incentivizing body cameras, and tracking disciplinary reports during hiring.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June that would create a database to share information about excessive force.

Last month, Governor Laura Kelly appointed a Commission on Racial Equity and Justice. They met in early July to work on relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. This commission could recommend policy changes to law enforcement statewide.

One of the highly debated topics you’re going to continue to hear is the legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” which gives public officials and members of law enforcement cover from civil lawsuits. In our follow up story, you’re going to hear where your elected officials stand on the issue.

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