Topeka City Attorney Amanda Stanley on Monday denied a request by the Topeka Capital-Journal seeking body camera video taken Oct. 13 as five Topeka Police officers fired 34 shots, killing Taylor L. Lowery after he raised a knife above his head and charged at one of them.
Releasing the video would not be “in the public interest,” Stanley said, citing previous Kansas court rulings to support that claim.
Max Kautsch, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, disagreed.
Kautsch said a more recent court decision than the ones Stanley cited indicates that the law on the matter at hand “is not currently clear.”
“Not in the public interest”
The Capital-Journal filed a Kansas Open Records Act request last week to seek police body camera video showing the fatal shooting of Lowery, 33, in a parking lot of the Kwik Shop at 4500 SW Topeka Blvd.
“The investigation revealed that each of the 34 bullets fired was warranted,” said a report released last week by Kagay.
In denying The Capital-Journal’s request on Monday, Stanley said the videos involved are criminal investigative documents, which the Kansas Open Records Act protects from public release unless they meet each of six specific requirements, one of which is that the release of the record must be in the public interest.
Although the Kansas Open Records Act does not define “the public interest,” a 1987 Kansas Supreme Court ruling concluded that it “must be a matter affecting a right or expectation of the community at large, and meaning must be derived from the ‘within the legislative purpose embodied in the statute,’ Stanley said.
“In addition, the person requesting the disclosure must demonstrate that: (1) there is a legitimate public interest in the disclosure; and (2) that the record will promote and serve that interest,” it said.
Stanley said District Attorney Mike Kagay, “the duly elected representative of the people,” released a 15-page report last week detailing the shooting and the events leading up to it.
“The body camera footage shows a small piece of the overall investigation and needs to be seen in the context of the entirety of the event,” Stanley said. “The release of this footage would not provide any additional information to the public. In addition, the body camera footage includes footage of the victims, including a minor, and other witnesses.”
Stanley cited a 2000 Kansas Court of Appeals decision as saying, “As such, it is not in the public interest until a court rules otherwise.”
Because the taking of a life is traumatic for the officers involved and is “always disturbing to watch,” the release of video footage of events of such a nature “should be placed under the utmost scrutiny and protection,” Stanley added.
“In the absence of some other compelling factor not present in this case, it is also a clearly unwarranted invasion of the officers’ personal privacy to have the footage released when the District Attorney felt the officers were justified in using force.” she said.
Stanley referred to a Kansas law that allows family members to view body camera video of situations in which people are shot to death by police.
Lawmakers in passing the law involved “made a policy choice to allow the family access to view the footage without requiring it to be released to the general public,” he said.
Moreover:Topeka police refuse to release body camera footage of the shooting involved in June
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’
Kautsch responded that the city’s reliance on 1987 Kansas Supreme Court precedent and a 2000 Court of Appeals case to justify the withholding of the footage does not take into account the fact that the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the law on the matter at hand “is not currently clear.”
Kautsch said, “At best, the cases cited by the city provide questionable support for keeping video out of public view, particularly where, as here, one person has died from police use of force, related criminal investigation has concluded, and District Attorney Kagay has announced that no charges will be filed.”
What’s more, Kautsch said, any presumptions that might have existed allowing law enforcement agencies to unilaterally close criminal investigation records were overridden in a pair of high-profile district court cases in 2021.
Such cases have involved the disclosure of police reports in a case of excessive use of force resulting in the death of a 17-year-old boy in Overland Park and a court order to hand over body camera footage in two cases in Wichita where, as in Topeka, the credibility of a police department has been questioned, he said.
Kautsch added, “As the Sedgwick County District Court judge said in that case, ‘when there is misconduct or even alleged misconduct, it is in the public interest to know exactly what happened and what corrective measures have been taken. taken to deal with such misconduct, if any.'”
Given that these relatively recent court findings involve similar incidents, it’s disappointing that the Topeka city government apparently intends to withhold video of Lowery being fatally shot, Kautsch said.
While the city is right to point out that the video is only a small part of the investigation, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” he said.
“Taxpayers have the right to challenge or verify the district attorney’s finding that the shooting was justified,” Kautsch said. “Certainly, when 34 shots have been fired and a person is killed, it is reasonable to ask whether the shooting was not justified and whether the officers committed misconduct instead. Only the video can provide the context needed to make that decision.”
Moreover:The release of police body camera recordings varies throughout Kansas
Here’s what Topeka law enforcement has to say
The names of the officers who killed Lowery have not been made public. The district attorney’s office will not seek to prosecute them, Kagay said.
His report says the chain of events involved began just before 12:30am on October 13, when Lowery’s sister called 911 to report that she was trying to force her way into the bedroom where was barricaded in her home at 4842 SW Topeka Blvd., Lot No. 6. The woman’s name is not mentioned in the report.
Police arrived, saw Lowery holding a butcher knife inside the mobile home at 12:39 and ordered him to drop it, but he fled through a back door, the report said.
He said police reached Lowery outside the mobile home but he swung the knife in a “fighting stance” while holding a socket wrench in his other hand.
Lowery then re-entered the mobile home, where the officers subsequently forcibly entered.
Lowery came towards officers inside the mobile home, then left it through a back door and drove off in a Chevrolet Equinox, the report said.
It said that Lowery drove to the Kwik Shop lot at 4500 SW Topeka Blvd., parked the Equinox, walked up to another vehicle, and violently attempted to pull a woman out.
Why did Topeka police officers shoot?
The report said officers got out of their vehicles, identified themselves as cops, and began yelling commands at Lowery as he tried to pull the woman out of the car.
Lowery turned to a police sergeant, screamed, raised the knife above his head and charged him, the report said.
It said the sergeant backed away but fired three times when Lowery was 10-10 feet away.
A police detective shot Lowery at about the same time, which was 12:44 a.m., and he “fell,” the report said.
Meanwhile, three other officers, one of them a sergeant, had taken up positions near Lowery, he said.
The report says he got up, grabbed an object and started moving towards the sergeant again before the other three officers shot him. The object was found to be a socket wrench.
Officers then began rendering aid to Lowery, who was pronounced deceased at 12:57 at the scene, the report said.
“The autopsy performed on Lowery determined that he was hit by multiple bullets and 10 bullets were recovered during that examination,” Kagay’s report said. “The most significant injuries consisted of three bullet wounds in the abdomen and three bullet wounds in the chest. These bullet wounds were determined to be the cause of death.”
No one else was injured.
Taylor Lowery was under the influence of illegal drugs
Lowery was found to have been under the influence of amphetamines, methamphetamines and cocaine at the time of her death, Kagay said.
The five officers subsequently spent time on paid administrative leave, as per standard protocol for the Topeka Police Department, Topeka Police Chief Bryan Wheeles said.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation investigated the circumstances involved and provided its findings to Kagay, who responded by releasing last week’s report.
“The officers involved put themselves in imminent danger to their lives to fulfill their obligation to protect the public,” Kagay’s report said. “It was only through their efforts in using deadly force that they were able to finally put an end to the danger posed by Lowery.”
City Attorney: Body cam footage totaled more than 10 hours
The sergeant and detective who initially shot Lowery were unassigned or wore body cameras, and the location where the interaction took place was in a camera blind spot at the Kwik Shop, Kagay’s report said.
Body cameras worn by the other officers involved showed what happened after the first shots were fired, he said.
In response to KORA’s request from The Capital-Journal seeking all body camera video involved, Stanley said, “The entire video totals approximately 10 hours of video footage.”
Contact Tim Hrenchir at 785-213-5934 or [email protected].