PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. - The Sunflower State has very little sunshine for law enforcement records. Most Kansans are unaware of their inability to see records collected about themselves or loved ones. They're either forced to spend thousands of dollars to open them or can't afford to even try. This story is part one of a three part investigation that shows what can happen when records are restricted in Kansas. Read about the other two and watch our documentary at KSHB.com/darkstate.
Four years after the death of her daughter Susan Stuckey, Beverly Stewart believes her daughter would still be alive if police had just placed a phone call.
She also believes if she hadn’t fought to see records from the Prairie Village Police Department, she would never have known police had promised Susan they would call her mom.
Beginning in March of 2010, Susan Stuckey’s mental health deteriorated. The 47-year-old made repeated calls to 911 requesting cigarettes and asking for police to arrive armed to kill her. Her behavior started frightening neighbors in her apartment complex, so the landlord moved forward with eviction proceedings.
Beverly believes the thought of losing the home she had lived in for many years caused her mental condition to deteriorate further.
On March 31, 2010, Stuckey made another call to 911. By 7 a.m., Susan’s Prairie Village apartment complex was surrounded by 17 members of the Prairie Village Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT).
At the time, Johnson County Prosecutor Steve Howe said during that call, Stuckey had threatened to burn down the complex, which is why PVPD chose to dispatch the CIRT team.
Officers negotiated with Susan for two hours before they decided to break down the door to her apartment and physically take her to get help. However, the situation escalated. On an audio recording of the raid, Stuckey can be heard yelling at officers before they break down the door.
Officers reported Stuckey had threatened them by swinging a baseball bat, a broomstick, and finally threw a knife at an officer. Police reported the knife hit that officer in the chest. The officer shot Stuckey three times, killing her.
Prairie Village Police investigated and cleared the officer. The department also presented an award to the officer for valor displayed during the incident.
Beverly Stewart, Stuckey’s mother, told 41 Action News the police account of what happened didn’t make sense to her. She asked to review records about the standoff herself, but was denied.
“They (Prairie Village Police) said ‘you'll never get (the records)’,” Stewart said.
This was moment Stewart discovered how little sunshine falls on law enforcement records in the Sunflower state.
Under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), all law enforcement investigative records, probable cause affidavits, search and arrest warrants are closed records. Kansas is the only state where these records are presumptively closed. Citizens have to use the legal system to get a judge to open the records. In many cases, that means hiring an attorney to convince a judge to open the records In most states, the records are presumptively open putting the burden to keep the records sealed on the shoulders of prosecutors.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In early May, both houses of the Kansas Legislature passed a partial open records bill. Gov. Sam Brownback has indicated he will sign the bill into law.
Stewart spent two years fighting to see records about her daughter. She eventually hired attorney Cheryl Pilate to represent her. Pilate succeeded when a judge ordered Prairie Village police to turn over investigative reports and recordings from the standoff.
“What I found out in the records: They lied to me. They lied to me,” Stewart said.
The records showed that the officer conducting negotiations with Stuckey was scheduled to attend training on negotiating techniques, but had not actually been trained in such techniques at the time of the standoff.
The reports also revealed SWAT team officers had brought many non-lethal forms of force, like pepper spray and bean bags, to the scene.
Records also reviewed that a mental health organization had offered its assistance, but Prairie Village declined their help.
However, Stewart was most disturbed by learning Stuckey had repeatedly asked officers to call her mom and even provided them with a phone number.
On the tape, the officer tells Stuckey he called Stewart, but does not elaborate.
Stewart said she was at home that day and did not ever receive a call from police.
“Totally broke my heart. Why wouldn't they call me? I could have saved her life. She was frightened. She told the police she was frightened,” Stewart said.
She told 41 Action News she believes she could have diffused the situation if police had only brought her to the scene.
“I would never have known all that had we not pursued and got the records,” Stewart said.
Stewart took Prairie Village to court and succeeding in getting a $560,000 settlement. She hopes the city will
make changes to better respond to mental health incidents.
Stewart is also paying careful attention to the fight to open records in Topeka with HB 2555. The bill, proposed by Shawnee Representative John Rubin, would make probable cause affidavits open records. Probable cause affidavits contain the evidence and information police present to a judge in order to secure an arrest warrant. The bill would also make search warrants available to the person whose property is searched 30 days after the warrant is returned.
The bill passed through the house 113-10. It currently is in the Kansas senate. Though the bill represents a small step forward, it still does not make police investigative records, like the ones Beverly Stewart obtained, open record.
“I hope everybody will fight for open records. You should be able to get them. My daughter is dead. I would never have known what happened ,” she said.