Report: Police violated open-records law in bodycam case

AP News
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Posted: Jan 23, 2017 5:55 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky State Police violated the state's open-records law by refusing a mother's request for bodycam video from her son's death by municipal police officers who were responding to a restaurant drive-thru shooting, the state attorney general's office said Monday.

The agency had denied Kathy Harris a copy of the police bodycam video because it said public disclosure of the "extremely graphic images" would be so traumatic that it could "irreparably harm" the Harris family and two victims who survived the shooting spree in Russellville, Kentucky.

That argument was rejected by Assistant Attorney General Michelle D. Harrison. Her opinion sided with Harris, whose 34-year-old son Joseph Harris was fatally shot in the confrontation with officers in the southern Kentucky town last March.

"Not only has no evidence been presented that she or any other surviving family members object to disclosure of the video in dispute, Ms. Harris has waived her privacy interests," the opinion said. "This fact certainly undermines the argument that the bodycam video capturing the officer-involved shooting which resulted in Mr. Harris' death should not be disclosed."

The other victims were wounded prior to Harris' death and their injuries were not shown on the requested video, Harrison said.

"In the absence of any other compelling facts that would justify the denial, this office finds that KSP violated the (Kentucky Open Records) Act in denying Ms. Harris' request," the opinion said.

Harrison cautioned, however, that the opinion should not be construed as setting a "general rule of application" in such cases. Instead, the opinion was based on "particular facts" presented in this case, she said.

AG's opinions are legally binding in disputes involving Kentucky's open-records law but can be appealed to circuit court. State police did not immediately respond to a call Monday seeking comment on the opinion and whether the agency will appeal.

State police did provide Kathy Harris with a copy of the investigation into her son's death but withheld the video in its entirety, the opinion said.

Joseph Harris was fatally shot during a confrontation with three Russellville police officers. When challenged by police, Harris brandished a weapon toward the officers, who then fired on him, state police said. Harris died at the scene.

Harris and all three officers involved were white. Two of the officers were equipped with body cameras, Russellville police Chief Victor Shifflett said.

A local grand jury reviewed the case and decided not to issue any indictments. All three officers were placed on administrative leave immediately after the shooting but are now back on duty.

Harris, of Lewisburg, Kentucky, was suspected of shooting his former girlfriend while she waited in line at a McDonald's drive-thru at Russellville, according to state police. Harris drove to the restaurant, got out of his vehicle and opened fire, police said.

He then fled on foot and encountered the three Russellville officers. During the confrontation, a bystander was struck by glass after a bullet crashed through the window of a nearby doughnut shop, state police said.