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EDITORIAL: Release the video. Transparency is only way to judge Lexington Police in recent incident.

Lexington Herald-Leader - 4/9/2021

Apr. 9—When police departments wonder why the public doesn't trust them, they need look no further than Lexington's latest incident.

The case of Liam Long, a 19-year-old autistic man struck by a Lexington police cruiser in the middle of a mental health crisis, shows exactly why a default mode to secrecy doesn't serve the public or the police well.

Police were called to Long's house on March 30 by a social worker; at some point Long ran away and was hit by the cruiser. According to his mother, Kendra Long, he suffered a brain bleed, a fractured nose and shoulder as well as multiple lacerations that required stitches. He is still hospitalized.

The family has received conflicting accounts of what happened from witnesses, and would like to know if their son, who is Black, was treated as a patient or a criminal.

It would be easy to find out — and stop a flood of uneasy rumors and suspicion — if only the Lexington police would release the body-worn camera videos of officers at the scene. But police have said they won't do that until the internal investigation is complete. Under the state open records act, there is an exemption for preliminary materials that is too broad and used too often.

Thanks to a recent Kentucky Supreme Court decision, this decision is wrong under the law and in the public square.

Amye Bensenhaver of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, said the video is separate and distinct from the investigation and therefore cannot be kept secret as part of the whole.

"The chief can't withhold the video unless he can articulate actual (nonspeculative) harm," she said. "He can't indefinitely postpone access to the video based on a claim that he wants to await the conclusion of the investigation. The video stands alone from the final investigative report as a public record."

That argument was recently upheld in the blockbuster case of the Kentucky Kernel versus University of Kentucky at the Kentucky Supreme Court. The justices decided unanimously that a public agency cannot treat an investigative file as "one giant record, unable to be separated. Grouping all the documents together as one record to avoid production is patently unacceptable under the ORA."

But this kind of secrecy also builds on the distrust of Black communities that have been the victims of police brutality all over the country. It would be easy enough for police to release the video without the final investigative file. It would answer immediate questions and help to heal longstanding divisions.

In aid of that, the city should take up activist April Taylor's idea to "add a provision to the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police to require police to release body-camera footage within three days of a use-of-force incident." As Taylor told Herald-Leader reporter Beth Musgrave, "those body cameras were purchased to increase transparency and accountability yet police repeatedly withhold body camera footage when it deals with a use-of-force incident."

This does not have to be difficult. Release the video, first to the family, as Chief Weathers suggested, then to the public. Transparency is the only way to heal decades of distrust.


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