Topeka police shot and killed Christopher Kelley in June as he was suffering a mental crisis, claiming the 38-year-old Marine veteran came charging towards them with a knife.
Last month, Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay cleared the cops of all wrongdoing on the basis that Kelley came charging towards them with a knife after almost an hour of using the knife to cut himself, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.
But today, more than three months after the shooting, the Topeka Police Department is refusing to release the body camera footage from the incident as well as the names of the officers involved in Kelley’s death.
David Huckabee, a Topeka city attorney and “police legal advisor,” told the Capital-Journal that releasing the videos would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” for the officers involved.
Huckabee also cited other arguments that have no legal merit, according to attorney Max Kautsch, who is also president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government.
“The credibility of the entire local law enforcement apparatus is at stake until it releases the video,” he told the Capital-Journal.
The incident took place on June 24 after police responded to a call of a man with a knife trespassing on BNSF Railway property, which is the freight train company operating out of Topeka.
Kelley had reportedly threatened a BNSF employee with the knife, then used the knife to cut himself before the cops arrived, Kagay told local media.
The cops set up a perimeter and tried negotiating with Kelley for about an hour. They also shot him with non-lethal bean bag rounds but claim he continued to use the knife to cut himself.
Then they claim he came charging at them with the knife over his head which was when they shot and killed him.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation conducted an investigation before sending its findings to the district attorney’s office. On September 23, Kagay announced that no charges will be filed against the cops based on the evidence.
But nearly two weeks later, the city has refused to make this evidence public.
The Capital-Journal filed a public records request for the footage the same day the cops were cleared but were denied for the following reasons:
- The videos are “personnel records” – Huckabee, the police legal advisor, cited a section in the Kansas Open Records Act that enables government agencies to “deny the release of any materials considered as personnel records, performance ratings or individually identifiable records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment.” But Kautsch, president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, said that section applies to personal information like home addresses and social security numbers, not body camera footage.
- The videos are “criminal investigation records” – The state open records act states that criminal investigation records may be kept confidential but it also states that these records may be released if they are in the public interest.
- The videos are not “in the public’s interest” – Huckabee claims the videos are not in the public’s interest but Kautsch argues they are very much in the public interest because it would allow the public to see for themselves what took place that day rather than take the city for its word.
- The videos would “interfere with prospective law enforcement action” – Kautsch said this also lacks merit because the case is already closed.
- The videos have a “potential to endanger or physical safety of a person” – Kautsch said if the city was so concerned about the safety of the officers, then it could blur their faces which is acceptable under state law.
- The videos would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” – Kautsch argues that not only can the city blur the faces of the cops but that under the state public records law, any concerns about personal privacy are outweighed by the public’s interest.
The Capital-Journal does not mention how it plans to proceed but the fact they are reporting on the issue indicates it is unlikely to back down in its quest to obtain the videos.
According to the obituary, Kelley was born in Topeka on September 11, 1983, then joined the United States Marine Corps in 2002 after graduating from high school where he served in Iraq, Japan and Okinawa. In 2007, after having left the Marine Corps, he enlisted with the U.S. Army. He was buried with full military honors.
Kelley’s family is circulating a petition calling for more oversight of the Topeka Police Department.