By DANIEL CUDILL, Kansas News Service
TOPEKA — Wendy Couser, a former juvenile intake officer at the Newton Police Department, has always believed in the importance of consequences.
But Couser feels that she’s yet to see consequences for the law enforcement officials who beat, shot and killed her son, William “Matthew” Holmes, during an arrest in August 2017. That’s because, she said, police only conducted one investigation, the full details of which were not made public.
“I couldn’t have gotten information on my own if I didn’t have attorneys,” Couser said. “I’m sure nobody would have told me anything.”
A new bill in the Kansas Legislature could change how investigations into police-involved fatal shootings are conducted and how evidence like police reports and witness statements is released.
The bill would require all fatal police shootings to be investigated by at least two outside agencies. If officers do not face criminal charges, the investigations — dashcam and body camera video evidence likely included — would become public record. Current state law largely allows district attorneys and local police departments to decide which details to release and when.
Bill sponsor Rep. David Benson, a Democrat from Overland Park, said making investigations more public would allow people to decide whether the shooting was justified and whether a district attorney made the right call.
“These are traumatic events, not only for the family but for the communities involved, for the police officers involved,” he said, “and I hope that we can be a catalyst for better transparency, better accountability and better training.”
But opponents of the bill said releasing officers’ names could negatively affect their private lives.
‘Ferguson in Kansas’
Wisconsin was the first to pass this type of legislation, quietly signed into law in early 2014. A few months later, after police shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the law became a national model for states wanting to open up police-shooting investigations.
Kansas ranks 28th in the U.S. for its rate of fatal police shootings, according to the Washington Post. It’s had 47 from 2015 to 2019 — about 16 shootings per 1 million people.
Holmes, a 24-year-old black man with schizophrenia, died after McPherson County Sheriff’s Deputy Chris Somers, a white man, shot him in the back during an arrest. The incident began after Holmes led police on a stolen vehicle chase.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation prepared a report, which McPherson County District Attorney Greg Benefiel used in deciding four months after the shooting not to charge Somers. He said police believed Holmes was reaching for the gun of an officer who had him pinned to the ground, which justified Somers’ response of lethal measures.
Couser, however, said most of the officers on scene knew her son, and knew of his mental health condition. And based on video evidence she saw while working at the department, Couser said she believes her son was complying with police.
“Matt threw his hands up,” she said. “He trusted those police officers because I worked with them and I trusted them. Would he have taken an ass-whooping? Yes, he would have. And he knew consequences. He knew he was going to jail … and he was okay with that.”
Couser has filed a federal lawsuit against all three law enforcement agencies involved: the Newton Police Department and the Harvey and McPherson county sheriff’s departments.
The only piece of footage that the public has seen was released nearly a year after the shooting. Loevy & Loevy, the Chicago law firm representing Couser, filed an open records request and received the footage shortly after the officers learned they wouldn’t be charged. Attorney Josh Loevy said the video they released to the public is a condensed version.
Couser said she believes there is more video evidence, adding that if Benson’s proposed changes had been law when her son was killed, the public would have gotten a fuller understanding of the shooting.
“People are already outraged at the little bit that they’ve seen,” she said. “If they’d seen the rest of the footage, it would be Ferguson in Kansas.”
More evidence is expected to be released during discovery in Couser’s upcoming federal trial.
Holmes’ case not unique
Holmes’ death wasn’t the reason Benson introduced his bill, though. Instead, it was the fatal shooting of 17-year-old John Albers by the Overland Park Police Department in 2018. The Johnson County District Court ruled the shooting was justified, but Albers’ family said it was difficult to get information about the case.
Albers’ mother, Sheila, has since formed a nonprofit organization, JOCO United, that advocates for higher training standards and better transparency in law enforcement. She settled a year ago with Overland Park for $2.3 million.
Johnson County is the most populous area in Kansas. In less populated rural counties, Sedgwick County DA Marc Bennett told NBC News, the bill could create unrealistic standards for investigating such shootings.
“There are practical impediments to insisting someone employed by another agency takes the lead,” Bennett told NBC.
The League of Kansas Municipalities also said local authorities could end up with additional costs under the bill, such as costs associated with public record requests, but it did not provide an exact cost estimate because it’s unclear how many fatal shootings will happen in the coming years.
The Kansas Peace Officers Association, a police advocacy group, has not yet taken a stance on the bill.
Nearly three years after police shot and killed her son, Couser said her family is still struggling to cope with the loss. She hopes that the bill will pass, so that families who lose their sons and daughters to fatal police shootings won’t have to file a lawsuit to get a full scope of what happened.
“Nobody should have to go through this,” she said. “At least if that bill had been passed, there would have been an independent party that possibly could have helped me in some way.”
Daniel Caudill is a Statehouse intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @byDanielCaudill. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.