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The KBI declined to release its case file on Rick ‘Tiger’ Dowdell’s 1970 killing by Lawrence police; here’s why it matters (Analysis)

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation recently declined an April record request from The Lawrence Times for its full investigation file into the July 16, 1970 death of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a 19-year-old Black man shot by a Lawrence police officer.

In doing so, the state’s largest law enforcement agency cited reasoning that contradicted its own recent practices in releasing records, saying in its July 2 response to the Times that public agencies aren’t required to make criminal investigation records open to the public.

But more importantly, the agency’s decision will at least temporarily continue to keep in the dark records that could finally shed light on a case of police violence that has been imprinted in the fabric of Lawrence for exactly 51 years. It also continues to leave Dowdell’s family searching for the full truth about what happened to their son and brother, thanks to a specific exemption in Kansas public record law.

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It’s a particularly peculiar move, considering it directly goes against a decision the KBI made just months ago. As the Times recently reported in an eight-part investigative series, Nick Rice’s younger brother Chris in 2020 received more than 600 pages of investigatory files from the agency — which helped uncover a concerted effort on the part of local and state officials to obfuscate and cast doubt on the circumstances leading to Nick Rice’s death.

Though Chris may have had an easier go at prying the records loose since Nick was a family member, the fact remains that the KBI first allowed Chris and his wife to view the records in person and later provided copies of the full case file after Chris retained an attorney. Without that discretionary action, Chris’ only method of recourse under Kansas law would have been filing a lawsuit against the KBI and asking a judge to order the release of Nick’s case file.

What makes the KBI’s decision to continue concealing the Dowdell case file even stranger is that two public records lawsuits in the state — one of which involved the KBI and the criminal investigation records provision — were recently adjudicated in favor of local news outlets seeking greater transparency in cases much more recent than Dowdell’s death 51 years ago today.

The killing of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell

It’s not in dispute that Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett shot Dowdell in the back of the head in an alley between 9th and Rhode Island streets on the night of July 16, 1970.

Dowdell and a female KU student were at a Black cultural center called Afro House, 946 1/2 Rhode Island, as officers responded to a report of nearby gunfire. Sensing trouble, the two got in a light-colored Volkswagen Bug and drove away.

Garrett, one of the officers responding to the gunfire report, noticed the car and followed Dowdell and the woman, who was driving. Garrett later said the car was driving without its headlights on and failed to stop at a stop sign, so he attempted to pull the vehicle over. When the car didn’t stop, Garrett began following more closely, and Dowdell eventually jumped out of the passenger’s side in the alleyway.

The public KBI report released at the time, along with official police statements detailed in media reports, indicate that Dowdell, carrying a .357 magnum in his left hand, shot at Garrett before the officer fired four shots, one of which struck Dowdell in the back of his head, killing him almost instantly.

There’s one big problem: Dowdell was right-handed.

What angle Dowdell’s gun was supposedly positioned in his nondominant hand is a question that remains unanswered to this day, as is his supposed role as an instigator despite being shot in the back of the head. Answers to those questions almost certainly lie within the records the KBI declined to release to the Times.

KU Libraries Exhibits “Student Holding Dowdell Poster,” Dec. 7, 1970
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Where the law fails transparency

Kansas public record law is written in a way that essentially offers agencies such as the KBI a choice of whether they want to release certain records. Criminal investigation materials, for example, are not required to be released as public records, and state agencies can exercise their own discretion.

Courts in the state can rule that criminal investigation records should be released to a requester if it finds that their disclosure is in the public interest, wouldn’t impact an ongoing law enforcement investigation, and wouldn’t potentially cause physical harm to any living person.

Kansas law, though, has a provision regarding criminal investigation records that is not matched anywhere else in the United States. A Times analysis of all 50 state public records laws found that the Kansas Open Records Act — which exempts criminal investigation records from required disclosure for 70 years, unless ordered otherwise by a court of law — is the only law in the country that so narrowly defines how such records can be released.

A majority of states allow for the release of criminal investigation records so long as doing so wouldn’t interfere with an active law enforcement investigation — and states such as Illinois and New Hampshire even place the burden of proof to do so on the government agency, rather than requiring the records requester to argue for why they should be released. Only 10 states specifically exempt all or most criminal investigation records from required disclosure; 10 other states have no language indicating such records can be withheld from the public.

The only state with a provision about criminal investigation records that comes close to approaching the opaqueness of Kansas’ law is Louisiana, which exempts investigation materials for just 10 years unless ordered otherwise by a court. Lacking the ability to review investigation files for seven decades without spending the time and resources necessary to file a successful lawsuit greatly impedes transparency in the Sunflower State — an issue that is on full display with the KBI’s decision to withhold its full investigation into Dowdell’s killing.

In its response to the Times’ public record request, the KBI used the statute protecting criminal investigation records from mandatory disclosure to justify continuing to withhold them 51 years after the fact. However, the agency also claimed, without specific examples, that other exemptions within the Kansas Open Records Act may apply to Dowdell’s case file.

“To provide a detailed analysis of every basis on which each individual record in the case file may be protected would be quite time consuming and potentially overly burdensome, so at this juncture, we rely only on the fact the records are criminal investigation records, and therefore subject to protection,” the agency’s letter said.

Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney who specializes in First Amendment and government transparency matters, said the KBI’s response is out of line with the spirit of the law.

“The KBI seems to be attempting to set an unfortunate precedent whereby the only way members of the public are able to get the records to which they are entitled by law is to incur the time and expense necessary to file a lawsuit with no guarantee that the funds will be returned, thanks to the law’s draconian fee provision,” Kautsch said.

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Filing a lawsuit for the disclosure of criminal investigation records has been successful in two other Kansas cases recently, both of which took place in the last several years. The highest profile of those is the 2018 police shooting death of a white, 17-year-old Overland Park boy named John Albers during a mental health welfare check.

For more than three years after Albers was killed by former officer Clayton Dennison, Overland Park officials refused to release information about the incident, the subsequent investigation, and Dennison’s $70,000 settlement agreement to various Kansas City-area media outlets, citing the same criminal investigation records exemption in state law.

Those media outlets, which included the Kansas City Star, KSHB and 41 Action News, all filed lawsuits seeking records relevant to Albers’ death. All of those lawsuits were successful, as Johnson County judges agreed that releasing information was in the public interest, wouldn’t interfere with an active law enforcement investigation and wouldn’t cause a danger to any person.

The parent company of an Abilene newspaper also successfully filed suit recently to force the disclosure of KBI investigation records into $72,000 that went missing from the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Department in 2017. The KBI investigated the missing funds from 2017 to 2019 and seemingly closed the inquiry with no criminal charges — which prompted the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle to sue for those records after the KBI declined to release them.

Why it matters

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s refusal to turn over the full records investigating Rick “Tiger” Dowdell’s death is deeply frustrating. The agency also raises questions by continuing to conceal the records of a tragic death that took place 51 years ago from public view, particularly given the string of recent court rulings.

The case is one which continues to resonate in Lawrence’s collective conscience. In 2015, a group of KU students called Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk included reopening an investigation into Dowdell’s death on a list of demands delivered to university administrators during an academic year filled with difficult conversations about race and equity. That demand was due in large part to a continued refusal on the part of Kansas’ most powerful law enforcement agency to release its full findings on Dowdell’s killing.

Although state law doesn’t mandate that criminal investigation records be open for public viewing until 70 years after the fact, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s refusal to do so in this particular case raises the important question of what the agency could possibly gain by continuing to shield these records from public view — and whether a news outlet should be forced to file a lawsuit to find out.

Conner Mitchell/@connermitchell0 Rick “Tiger” Dowdell’s headstone is pictured in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery. The inscription reads “We are an African people. We shall win.”
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Related coverage

Who killed Nick Rice? The series

In July 1970, 18-year-old Nick Rice was shot and killed on the KU campus. The circumstances of the killing were murky, and the shooter was never publicly identified. Now, The Lawrence Times is shedding light on the case in this extended series.

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— Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter for The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264.

If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com.

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