In a case that could have local implications, The Wichita Eagle recently filed a lawsuit against the City of Wichita that claims the city violated the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA).
The lawsuit contests that the city violated KORA when it denied an open records request in October for access to footage captured by Wichita Police Department (WPD) body-worn cameras.
This request was made by Eagle staff as they were in the process of investigating an incident in which Wichita police were accused of racial profiling.
Requesting open records from public entities while gathering information to report news is a commonplace practice for journalists.
KORA helps to define or outline that process and the rules regarding what records are open in the state of Kansas.
Journalists rely heavily on this law to acquire the records that allow them to report news accurately. The law pertains not only to journalists, but to all citizens, too. Anyone may inspect a record.
While records requests pertaining to body-worn cameras have not been filed yet in Arkansas City by media, local police do wear body-worn cameras and this type of request could occur in the future, so the results of this lawsuit has potential implications for the Arkansas City Police Department and City of Arkansas City.
When the Eagle’s news staff requested the video footage, they initially were given approval and provided an invoice for the records request.
However, the City of Wichita’s city attorney and director of law, Jennifer Magana, later denied the request altogether, stating the footage did not have to be released.
Three reasons were given — it had not been shown at a public government meeting, it was for a criminal investigation record and its release only was authorized to a limited number of people.
The article written by Eagle staff states that “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 Eagle is continuing to demand that the City of Wichita complies with its KORA request and provide the news outlet with the footage it has requested.
These legal proceedings call into question where body-worn camera footage falls within the Kansas Open Records Act.
Because body-worn cameras were meant to increase the public transparency of police interactions with civilians, it seems that with the advancement of this technology, the Kansas Legislature might need to revisit some aspects of KORA, which originally was instituted in the 1980s.
The open records law contains small gaps from time to time, especially concerning recording devices and new forms of communication. For instance, until last year, communications via text message were somewhat of a gray area — there was no specific language in KORA that mentioned that form of communication as an open record. The Legislature fixed this gap in July 2016.
Until body-worn cameras are explicitly added to the Kansas Open Records Act, it is likely that there will remain at least two schools of thought regarding their usage.
The first, professed by police departments, is that footage recorded with body-worn cameras is subject only to Kansas statutes related directly to law enforcement recordings.
And the second, argued by the Eagle and other media entities, argues the recordings should be considered open records based on the definition of what constitutes a “public record.”
“Public records are records made, maintained, created or possessed by a public agency — that is to say, some branch of the state or local government,” according to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office website. KORA presenters often emphasize that this statement is true regardless of the form or “media” the record takes, whether electronic, paper or otherwise.
It appears The Wichita Eagle’s lawsuit will be the first major step in determining which of these perspectives will become the dominant one in the eyes of the law.