The attorney for the family of a Wichita girl wounded by a bullet fragment when a police officer fired at her dog is criticizing the city for not immediately releasing the officer’s body-camera video of the shooting almost six months ago.
The video shows Officer Dexter Betts in the family’s living room. The light on the officer’s gun illuminates the 9-year-old girl, meaning the barrel was pointed at her, the family’s attorney, Charley O’Hara, told The Eagle on Friday. The footage shows Betts firing two shots in rapid succession at close range at the girl’s 35- to 40-pound dog. She instantly jumps up and screams after a bullet fragment ricochets off the floor, where she sat near the dog. She wails: “Ow! … Hurt my eye! … My eye!” It left a scar above her eye, O’Hara said.
Asked if the family plans to sue the city, O’Hara said, “Obviously, the family would consider it, under the circumstances, I think.”
The department fired Betts less than a month after the Dec. 30 shooting, and he faces a trial later this summer on a felony charge of aggravated battery in the incident.
Although O’Hara said he appreciated that District Attorney Marc Bennett provided the video on Thursday, O’Hara said the city should have released the video six months ago — immediately after the Dec. 30 shooting so the public could make up its own mind then.
“Why didn’t we have this released the day after it happened? The chief of police saw it.”
Now that the video has been provided by the county’s chief prosecutor, it is gaining the attention of national and international TV outlets.
If the city would release body camera footage right away — whether an officer’s conduct is justifiable or not — it shows the department has nothing to hide, O’Hara said.
“Then people have confidence in the police,” he said.
Otherwise, he said, it looks like “hide-the-ball.”
“It makes the whole Police Department look terrible” — when most officers are professional and do the right thing, O’Hara said.
Police Captain Doug Nolte said the video was a criminal investigation record in a felony case. “For this reason, it was not appropriate for the City to release it earlier,” he said in an emailed statement. “Regarding Attorney Charley O’Hara’s statement, the City does not typically respond to attorneys involved in litigation seeking damages from the City. Respectfully, it’s not up to any private attorney to decide what would or would not interfere with a police investigation.”
The department policy on body-worn cameras says the city attorney determines whether video can be provided in full or with redaction. Neither City Attorney Jennifer Magana nor City Manager Robert Layton could be reached Friday afternoon.
Reached by phone, Mayor Jeff Longwell said he relies on Police Chief Gordon Ramsay and attorneys for guidance on how to handle police video. Longwell said the city tries “to be as transparent as possible,” that “cases can be quite complex” and that the city is “trying to find that right balance.”
In a statement Friday, Betts’ attorney, Jess Hoeme, defended the shooting. Hoeme said Betts was responding to a 911 call that was “highly volatile and presented a real danger for the responding officers’ safety. The 911 caller advised that a firearm had been used in violence in the caller’s house. Officer Betts’ supervisor directed Betts to enter the house and locate that firearm. The dog — highly agitated … — bared its teeth, barked viciously, and lunged at Officer Betts.”
Hoeme said Betts acted “in full compliance” with the department’s policy manual and “did exactly what he trained to do. The entire situation is unfortunate, but it is still a case of self‐defense. Officer Betts is innocent of the offense charged.”
Hoeme said he is pleading with prospective jurors “to reserve judgment until they have seen all of the evidence and considered the totality of the circumstances. There is much more to the story than the emotionally inflammatory moments depicted on the recently released video.”
Bennett, the district attorney, released the video on Thursday after The Eagle requested it and after parts of it were shown in court during last week’s preliminary hearing for Betts.
The Eagle has sued the city after it denied requests to release body camera video of an Iraqi American family detained at a Wichita bank in September and footage related to a traffic accident allegedly involving an off-duty Wichita police officer.
O’Hara, the well-known Wichita defense attorney representing the girl’s family, said that if the city had provided the video to the public earlier, “we all could have made up our minds. … I don’t understand the government’s position of not releasing the video of what actually happened. I don’t know why they don’t do it in every case.”
One argument against releasing the video is that it could interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation. “There are times when a video becoming open too early could influence witnesses,” Bennett said. “Sometimes, it takes a day or two to locate witnesses. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the bottom of an investigation,” he said. But once charges are filed, he said, it’s no longer an ongoing investigation.
The district attorney said he would be concerned with a policy requiring automatic release of video. Some images are too private, too embarrassing for someone “on their worst night,” and there is no public good to come from showing it, Bennett said.
O’Hara doesn’t agree with the argument that early release of video hampers investigations.
“How could a video of what happened jeopardize what happened?” O’Hara said.
“Could there be a more key piece of evidence than a video of what actually happened?”
“I would want everybody to know that if there is bad apple. There’s a lot of good policemen. They’re as honest as could be.” Still, he said, “When they don’t release the video immediately … that makes all the police look bad. It makes it look like they’re trying to hide something.”
According to the girl’s mother, O’Hara said, “it’s been traumatic for (the girl), and she’s had problems dealing with it. But they are trying to get through it.”
The mother, he said, “has always said that what they want to do is to keep it from happening again.”