- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Topeka media outlets that want to challenge an unwritten police department policy of not releasing the names of people who commit suicide in public will have to file a lawsuit, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office said.

The Topeka Capital-Journal, WIBW-TV, WIBW-AM and Kansas First News contend the identities of suicide victims who die in public should be made available for consideration in news-gathering purposes.

Their attorney, Mike Merriam, filed a complaint last year asking the district attorney to determine whether the police department’s refusal to release those names complies with the Kansas Open Records Act.

The DA’s office responded last month that it couldn’t offer an opinion, The Capital-Journal (https://bit.ly/1Eu8nIc ) reported.

The office, which is responsible for enforcing the open records act, investigates only whether an agency gives a valid response in denying records, senior assistant district attorney Todd Hiatt told the newspaper last week, adding that “valid” doesn’t mean the response has merit.

In 2013, citing an unwritten policy, the police department denied a request for information about a woman who reportedly stepped into the path of an oncoming train. The district attorney’s office said police had provided a valid exemption not to release the names - that the information was not of public interest - and if the media disagreed, they could take it to court.

Merriam filed the complaint months later on behalf of the media outlets. It took 13 more months for the DA’s office to respond.

Twice this year, the newspaper asked the DA’s office for an update, once after a man ran in front of a semitrailer on Interstate 70, tying up traffic for hours.

Merriam said the district attorney’s office disregarded the police department’s inconsistency when it comes to releasing the identities of victims of homicide.

“They’re picking and choosing, and that’s not allowed under the open records act,” he said.

The media outlets haven’t yet decided whether to take further legal action.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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