FF12 uncovers inconsistencies in how law enforcement follows body camera law

(KWCH) In a living room full of knick-knacks, family photos and toys, three children sit on a couch tucked in side by side with their eyes glued to their mom's cell phone screen.

Kaitlyn, 11, Christopher, 9, and 18-month-old Kaylee are focused on one thing - pictures of their dad moving across the phone screen. "The baby" as they call Kaylee won't let anyone else hold the phone.

"Daddy, daddy, daddy," she says, bouncing in her seat.

"It's heartbreaking to watch her talk to his pictures," her mother, Kristina Myers says.

This scene isn't uncommon in the home Myers and her children live in now. Though they're from Sun City, they're now staying just shy of 50 miles away with family near the Oklahoma border.

Myers says right now, she can't go back.

"I remember hearing on Facebook that my husband had been shot and was dead," Myers said, remembering October 7, 2017. "The county never came to tell me anything. I found out on Facebook and then my father in law and I drove to Sun City and I had to walk past the crime scene tape to ask them what happened to him."

The crime scene, she'd find out, involved the Barber County Undersheriff, Virgil "Dusty" Brewer.

According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, deputies responded to a bar in Sun City to reports of 42-year-old Steven Myers drunk, threatening people and carrying a shotgun. By the time deputies responded, the KBI said Myers was gone.

They later found him out near a shed behind a home in Barber County. He wasn't carrying the gun at that point. After shouting commands at Myers, Undersheriff Brewer fired a less-lethal shot. The KBI said Myers wasn't following commands. That shot hit him in the chest and killed him.

"The main thing was he didn't have a gun when he was shot," Kristina Myers said. "He didn't have a gun."

Following the shooting, Myers said she knew something was wrong so she hired an attorney and requested copies of the body camera video of the shooting. Myers said they were told "absolutely no."

Myers and her attorneys took the Barber County Sheriff's Office to court over the case saying it violated the Kansas Open Records Act. Attorneys for the Barber County Sheriff's Office argued Myers and her attorneys could come see the video but couldn't have copies.

Then, two months later and the day before a judge would rule on the accused KORA violation, the Barber County Sheriff's Office released copies to news outlets and told Myers' attorneys they'd be getting theirs in the mail.

"I thought with open records it was supposed to be open records not when we want you to have them. It's supposed to be open," she said. "There needs to be some uniformity in the body camera laws."

Myers' attorney, Mike Kuckelman, said this case has been an eye opener for many about the open records laws. He's also calling for change.

"There's a lot of inconsistency in the state of Kansas in how the criminal records exception is applied under the Kansas Open Records Act," Kuckelman said.

WE CHECKED

FactFinder 12 decided to test that claim and what we found was inconsistency.

We requested body camera video of a traffic stop from December 1st, 2017 from more than 100 law enforcement agencies across Kansas. The responses were across the board.

Of the 101 agencies, 67 said they have body cameras on officers or deputies. A few said though they have the cameras, they use them on specific situations and not for traffic stops.

Of those 67 agencies, 15 never responded to our KORA request or were delayed for some reason. FactFinder 12 sent the requests in December of 2017 before the holidays.

There were three agencies who said we could come view the body camera video but could not make or receive copies of it.

Thirty agencies denied our request citing the Kansas Open Records law and calling the video "criminal investigative records". Many of those agencies said if we feel their decision is incorrect, we can appeal it to district court.

Twenty-two agencies said we could have the video yet the charges for the video differed. Some agencies mailed the copies for free while others charged for discs, worker time and/or redactions which amounted to up to $135.

After talking with several law enforcement leaders, we learned some aren't happy with the inconsistencies we found and want the law to change. Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said he wanted a more specific, outlined law that tells him exactly what to do.

But some didn't echo his thoughts.

INCONSISTENCY IS GOOD?

Some law enforcement leaders say the body camera law is fine just the way it is. They said the reason is each individual agency should be able to make the decision themselves and be able to weigh the options.

Andover Police Chief Mike Keller is one of them.

"The legislation has to be able to balance the needs of the public, the right for the public to know and the rights of personal or the rights of individuals," Keller said. "So we have to have that balancing act. The current legislation allows for that."

Keller didn't give us body camera video in our request because he said he couldn't find a public interest.

"Basically it was I didn't want to set a precedent of just opening videos or releasing these videos when there isn't that interest," Keller said.

Some agencies denied our request and said we could never have the video since it is always considered "criminal investigatory records". Keller says his agency isn't that way and if he can find a strong public interest in the video, he would consider releasing it.

His concern is privacy and how it would impact his department's daily work.

"I really would hate to come a time where our citizens are afraid to call the police in fear that their personal information or their problems are going to be on YouTube tomorrow morning," Keller said. "The current legislation is adequate and there are avenues there to protect."

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter agrees the law is sufficient saying each agency needs to be able to determine for themselves how to operate in a community.

"I'm happy with it. I think it covers what needs to be covered," Easter said. "It's different in each community. We live in a large community here in the Wichita, Sedgwick County area so we get questioned on a lot of incidents that occur, we get a lot more requests than anyone else gets. You know, some of the smaller communities that have body worn cameras, their citizens are trusting of their police department and would rather not see it."

Easter said it's the respective agency that needs to be responsible for making the right decisions for their community.

"I don't think we necessarily need the state coming in and making the decision for everybody. Just like a lot of our legislators aren't big on the federal government telling them what to do, local municipalities and local county governments are the same way with the state."

Easter did give us the body camera video and said the decision was simple.

"The car stop request that you asked wasn't under investigation so there was no reason for me to withhold it. We released other videos on other types of requests when the case wasn't under investigation. For me, it was actually pretty simple for me," he said.

The same reasoning is why Sheridan County Sheriff Brandon Carver gave us the video too.

"It's based off, you know, is the video part of an active criminal investigation," Carver said.

He and his undersheriff, Mark Sheetz also agree the law is fine and they're focused on transparency.

"The laws and the current statutes as they stand are pretty easy to understand from our perspective," Carver said.

Sheetz added, "Realistically, there's very few limitations as to why an agency can refuse it and I mean very few. The major one is if it's an active and we're doing kind of an investigation so almost if it's other than that, then people will get it if they request it."

While these law enforcement leaders appear to have strong knowledge of the law, we found not every agency has that kind of knowledge. When FactFinder 12 asked some law enforcement leaders why they responded to our request how they did, some said they just followed what other area sheriffs or chiefs were doing.

These men say that's a problem.

LAW VERSUS TRAINING

Chief Keller said since we sent our body camera video requests, there has been talk among law enforcement leaders and much of what they've discussed is that it's not the law that's the problem - it's the understanding of it.

"I will tell you that we have had some conversations within our chiefs association and we believe that probably one of the things that we do need to put out there is better training on that, Keller said. "We agree that additional education for all of our law enforcement heads is probably important."

Easter said, "With any law, laws can be interpreted and so sometimes training with different law enforcement agencies to say this is what the law says, this is what you have to do and what you don't have to do I think would be a good thing for the state of Kansas."

The men in Sheridan County say that knowledge is imperative in law enforcement.

"I think it just behooves any law enforcement officer to do the research and know the laws as best as they can," Undersheriff Sheetz said.

Sheriff Carver said, "It never hurts for law enforcement to you know get specialized training if it becomes an issue."

MOVING FORWARD

We asked Kristina Myers how she would feel about additional training for law enforcement versus changing the law as she requested.

She said she's in favor of that idea. She just wants change, especially in Barber County.

"They should have taken him to jail that day. They shouldn't have killed him," Myers said. "I don't know why this happened. It shouldn't have happened."

*Editor's Note: The original image on this story has Gove County listed as red. However, that was a mistake in the image. Gove County is now listed as green as the sheriff's office is willing to release video.