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Kansas City Considers Preventing Police From Stopping People Who Videotape Them

A protester who stepped onto the street and taunted police officers is shown here being led away in handcuffs at around 7 p.m.
File photo by Carlos Moreno
A protester who stepped onto the street and taunted police officers during protests on May 30 is led away in handcuffs.

The City Council is considering an ordinance that stems from the third-party taping last year of alleged excessive force by police against an unarmed, handcuffed transgender woman.

Kansas City police could not stop someone from videotaping their activities unless that person was substantially interfering with official duties, under an ordinance the City Council will consider Thursday.

The Council’s Finance Committee unanimously endorsed the measure Wednesday, as Kansas City and other cities around the country have been rocked by protests over police brutality.

Kansas City's ordinance actually predates the civic uproar over the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It stems from the third-party taping of alleged excessive force by police against an unarmed, handcuffed transgender woman named Breona Hill last year.

Police ordered the individual who was documenting the incident to stop and leave, and that person was charged in municipal court with interfering. However, Jackson County prosecutors used the video as evidence for assault charges against the two officers.

That was the impetus for this city council ordinance.

Finance Committee Chair Katheryn Shields told her colleagues Wednesday that she was stunned to find out that a passing motorist who stopped to videotape the police interaction with Hill had been charged, under a municipal traffic law.

“We want more transparency,” Shields said. “We don’t want basic traffic rules, a catch-all traffic ordinance, to be used to insulate the police from either observations or filming by the public.”

Shields said citizens have a First Amendment right to film interactions with police in public places as long as they are not hindering authorities in their official duties. She wanted this ordinance to make that clear to the city’s police, prosecutors and judges.

“Hopefully that message will be delivered,” she said.

Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw said she co-sponsored the ordinance because citizens want more accountability from government, and this clarifies that videotaping alone is not unlawful.

Kansas City Police Capt. Scott Simons said the person videotaping the Hill incident was not issued a citation because of the videotape, but because he was blocking traffic.

“Had he pulled up in front of that police car, behind that police car, walked up on the sidewalk he could film all day long. We welcome that. We have no problems with that,” Simons told the committee. “There was other traffic that was trying to get by that car that was parked in the middle of the street…. It wasn’t the fact that he was recording. It was the fact that he was in the middle of the road.”

Simons asked the committee to hold the ordinance for a week so police would have more time to speak to council members about it.

But Shields and others said it’s important to get this message out now, as protesters continue to gather on a nearly daily basis in Kansas City. In fact, the committee amended the ordinance so that if it passes the Council on Thursday it would take effect immediately.

Wednesday’s Council debate comes just as citizens have videotaped tense protests in recent days, with Kansas City police using tear gas and pepper spray against crowds of demonstrators.

In an interview with KCUR’s Up To Date, Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, said the protests are personal in Kansas City since the death of Ryan Stokes, who was shot and killed by a Kansas City police officer in 2013.

Howard said demands for reforms over the past seven years have gone unmet.

“The protests are good,” Howard said. “They are within the constitutional rights of the citizens of the United States of America. They are warranted, they are authorized, they are moral, they are right and we hear them. We must feel them and then we must respond accordingly.”

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith has defended his officers’ actions during the protests and said police respect the demonstrators’ right to gather peacefully.

“I said this from the very beginning, we ain't perfect. I know that a hundred percent, but I'm telling you, our hearts are in the right place,” Smith said at a press conference this week. “We want the same thing as everybody else. We want their voices heard and we want peace.”

He argued the police are trying to manage the protests in a responsible way and use good judgment in their interactions with the community.

“The police department doesn't want to have to come out here and take these tactics every night. When we come out, there is some measured response on our part and some judgment calls we have to make,” Smith said. “If we intervene early, are we preventing something? Are we provoking it? I wish there was a science to say, ABC, one, two, three, you go here. Here's the answer, but it's not always that way.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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