Sheila Albers doesn’t understand why an Overland Park police officer shot and killed her son two years ago or why the local prosecutor cleared the officer of wrongdoing.
She pleaded with lawmakers Tuesday to make changes in state law that would shine a light on officer-involved shootings by mandating public reports. Mothers whose sons were killed in high-profile police shootings in Topeka and Wichita joined Albers to raise concerns about the refusal by public officials to explain how shootings are justified.
"What we do not have are facts and evidence to back up assertions, and the people of Kansas deserve that transparency,“ Albers said. ”In no other profession can people make those assertions and not back it up with facts."
A House committee considered testimony from transparency organizations and law enforcement representatives on a pair of competing bills designed to make investigations into officer-involved deaths more public.
Law enforcement agencies sounded alarms about the potential for scaring off witnesses who know their information will be made public.
"We talk to people about things that are extraordinarily private — their drug problems, their sexual addictions, their adultery,“ said Bel Aire Police Chief Darrell Atterbury. ”These things come out in these investigations.“
The Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and groups representing news media advocated for the release of information as a means of building public trust.
Albers described how her 17-year-old son was killed during a welfare check after friends noticed his suicidal comments on social media.
The responding officer didn’t park in front of the house or knock on the door, she said. Instead, he waited behind a tree with his gun drawn. As her son backed a minivan out of the garage in a straight line at 2.5 mph, the officer fired his gun 13 times.
A month later, the district attorney told the family the shooting was justified.
“My husband and I find it grossly unacceptable that we have not seen any of the material used to clear the officer that shot our son,” Albers said.
Wichita police killed Lisa Finch's son in December 2017 after receiving a fake call from someone playing an online video game in California. The death was the result of a practice known as “swatting,” where police officers are lured to a residence under false pretenses.
Finch spoke before the committee to respond to concerns about the release of investigative materials, including the names of officers involved in shootings, possibly leading to harassment of the officers and their families.
"Families of the victim are put out there right away to be dissected and scrutinized by the public, leaving us open for harassment and veiled threats,“ Finch said. ”Why are police allowed to hide behind their shield? There's so much more I want to say, but my temper's getting the best of me."
Two Topeka police officers killed Theresa Joyce-Wynne’s son in 2017 by shooting him in the back as he ran away from them.
The district attorney cleared the officers of criminal charges because her son’s hand briefly passed over a pocket that contained a gun as he ran away. The family filed an ongoing civil lawsuit, and a federal judge disagreed with the district attorney’s interpretation of events.
In an interview, Joyce-Wynne said the lawsuit was the only avenue for her family to get answers from Topeka police and city officials.
"That's the only way the family is getting information,“ she said. ”I went to the depositions of the officers, and I know so much more than the public knows."
Kirk Thompson, director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said the KBI has major concerns with the proposed release of investigative reports.
The agency’s data shows Kansas averages about 21 officer-involved shootings per year, half of which are fatal. The KBI helps investigate about 70% of those cases.
“Witnesses are much less likely to provide true and accurate statements when they believe that they will be publicly identified,” Thompson said.
The Kansas Open Records Act allows for redaction of witness names and other sensitive information, such as home addresses and Social Security numbers.
Lawmakers who were involved in drafting the proposed bills expressed an interest in meeting with all interested parties to find common ground. The legislation would be tabled and reviewed by a special panel before any potential compromise is struck, meaning changes are unlikely to pass this session.
"I think we can find a solution that will work,“ Thompson said.