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Law Enforcement Overreach and Really Bad PR: Lessons Learned from Police Raid of Kansas Newspaper

Before August 11, few people outside Kansas had ever heard of the town of Marion, its 154-year-old watchdog local newspaper, or its new police chief Gideon Cody. That’s changed now that a scandal that unfolded there received international coverage.

What happened in Marion didn’t stay in Marion.

What Went Down

August 11 was the day local police conducted raids on the Marion County Record’s newsroom and on the home of its publisher, seizing a cellphone, computers, and other records. This surprise take down was allegedly to prove a crime occurred when a reporter investigated a local business owner’s driving record. The question is whether there was other motivation, considering that the paper was also looking into sources’ tips that misconduct had forced the new chief to resign from his previous job as a captain in the Kansas City Police Department. And there’s another eyebrow-raising twist to this story that I’ll get to in point four in a minute.

News outlets across the county and across the pond pounced on the story as legal experts and journalism organizations denounced the raid, all claiming in unison that federal law protects journalists’ materials and their newsrooms from such raids, and that, if there was evidence of any crime, a subpoena would have been the police department’s legal recourse.

As Marion’s dirty laundry made international news and the paper became the epicenter of the battle to protect democracy, things went from bad to worse to tragic. The publisher’s mother, the co-owner of the newspaper, lived with her son in the home that was raided. She watched tearfully, angrily, and hopelessly, her son said, as police seized some of her electronics and took pictures of her son’s bank and investment records. The next day, she collapsed and died of a heart attack. The image the public cannot unsee is that the impact of the raid took a deadly toll.

Then Police Were Ordered to Walk it Back.

The paper’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, a long-time champion in Kansas of media rights and the public-right-to-know, took action to stop the police from searching the items that were seized, and to force their return. Among the many pieces of new information Kansas City based KSHB TV’s I-team broke while doggedly covering the story, is this classic interview with Rhodes during which he asks regarding Chief Cody, “Can he spell hypocrisy?” (As it turns out, many may be asking the same question about the judge in this travesty of justice. Keep reading.)

Rhodes was successful in his efforts for the Marion Record.

According to media reports, the county attorney reviewed the paperwork connected to the raid the week afterwards and ordered the search warrant withdrawn and return of the seized items. He said, “Insufficient evidence exists to establish a legally sufficient nexus between this alleged crime and the places searched and items seized.”

What Went Wrong

On so many levels, so much went sideways, when the powers that be in a small town tried to hide dirty secrets from the outside world by silencing the media. Bad call. In their mission to hold the powerful accountable, journalists dig. And in this digital era, everyone sees what they find out. And the law protects the public’s right to know.

Here’s the breakdown of the breakdown in chronological order:

1. The public meeting the press was kicked out of. One of the first things that started this chain of events was a public forum Marion’s U.S. Congressman held in a local restaurant. He invited locals and the media. But the restaurant owner had police remove the Record’s staff. She didn’t like the way they covered the local news and said others in attendance felt the same way. Of course the Record covered the story of being escorted out of the meeting, because wait, since when shouldn’t the media cover a Congressman’s public meeting with his constituents – a meeting to which he’d invited the press? And what were they hiding? That story likely got more attention than whatever coverage would have run about locals discussing the issues of the day with their representative, had the reporters been allowed to stay and cover the (yawn) meeting. Lesson: If they really want to be transparent, elected officials should avoid holding public meetings in privately owned venues if the owners won’t allow media coverage.

2. The pre-emptive strike that backfired. Shortly after the public forum story ran, the Record received a tip delivered “over social media,” they said, that the business owner had a drunk driving record, and a suspended license, yet was still driving. This might be of interest because it could impact a pending liquor license for the restaurant. Record staff verified the driving record and the suspended license but decided at that time not to run a story. That could have been all she didn’t write, end of story, but then the restaurant owner put herself in the public spotlight, on her social media page and in a public city council meeting. Public relations professionals will sometimes advise clients that if they’re aware of a negative situation that is about to be exposed, they should get out in front of it. Tell their side of the story, then if a media report comes out, it’s sort of a nothingburger, right, because the central figure has already been transparent. But in this case, she accused the media of a crime. City council meetings are generally covered by local media and this one was no exception. The business owner said the Record staff had stolen her identity to verify her drunk driving record. Of course the Record then ran the story because they felt they’d been wrongfully accused of a crime in checking the businesswoman’s driving record. They deny any crime occurred. Lesson: Pre-emptive strikes are best left to people who are always in the spotlight such as slick politicians or corporate leaders. Everyday people not used to media scrutiny might first try to address the issue – could the license be reinstated after so many years, for example – and they might try contacting the media directly to discuss the story so there’s no appearance of a coverup.

3. The raid that blew up badly. The request for a search warrant was filed by the police chief and signed off on by a local judge. By itself, the warrant was sweeping and sought to seize a broad list of the paper and publisher’s home’s assets, which seemed well beyond the scope of the alleged crime that occurred with a news reporter’s search of the state’s driving records site. There was no affidavit for probable cause filed which would have spelled out the reasons police thought they had a case – or at least the court denied one had been filed. That made the raid look like every inch the Gestapo, ham-handed attempt to silence the media critics said it was. Moreover, the Record’s internal security cameras captured video of the newsroom raid, and when media posted the footage online, what people saw was a small-town newspaper’s tiny staff clearly outmanned. Had the results not been so tragic and potentially a threat to the free press, it would have been laughable. Lesson: Police departments should familiarize themselves with the law and use proper recourse before trampling on the media or public’s rights.

4. The search warrant signed under questionable circumstances. Why, exactly, did 8th Judicial District Magistrate Laura Viar sign such a board search warrant with no documents of probable cause on file? That’s a burning question legal experts and media outlets have been asking, and she’s not commenting. But the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star have been digging, and their latest jointly-filed story is interesting to note. Viar, they report, was arrested twice on DUI charges in Kansas in 2012. When the second arrest occurred, the story says, Viar was driving on a suspended license. Lesson: Judges are not above the law but should be above reproach. When they have an obvious conflict of interest, they should recuse themselves. Otherwise, there’s certainly an appearance of a miscarriage of justice.

5. The story the police chief couldn’t keep out of the news. When Gideon Cody accepted the offer to become Marion’s new Police Chief a few months ago, he said in a friendly interview with the Record that two of his priorities would be transparency and more responsive media relations. Then, the Record says, tips came into the newsroom that Cody left the Kansas City Police Department amid controversy. The Record’s editor, Eric Meyer, said the chief threatened to sue the Record if a story was published. The outlet couldn’t get the sources to go on record, so they parked the story. Then the raid put a spotlight on Cody. And the Kansas City Star ran the story on Cody’s Kansas City retirement, citing sources alleging a sexual misconduct scandal forced him out of the KCPD (something the chief denies). And then the Star’s story was picked up internationally by the Daily Mail, based in the U.K. and in the U.S. by Yahoo News, and the New York Post to name a few. It might help if the Kansas City police department released Cody’s personnel records; then the questions might be answered. Are they hiding something? Lesson: Large city police departments shouldn’t refuse to release personnel records when media asks for them under public records requests acts, which would tell whether any violations occurred. Otherwise, things blow up bigly.

6. The death of a matriarch. We’ll never know for sure whether the stress of the raid caused the death of Record co-owner Joan Meyer. But the timing suggests so. Her legacy before her death was that she reigned as the matriarch of a proud local newspaper. Nothing said or done now will bring her back, but her legacy in death is that she is a heroine, an icon standing tall in the fight for a free press. Lesson: Repeating, police departments should familiarize themselves with the law and use proper recourse before trampling on the media or public’s rights. If the Marion Police Department had subpoenaed the newsroom’s materials rather than seize them, even if the news outlet fought a subpoena, the legal battle would not likely have received much attention outside Marion, Kansas, nor caused the level of stress that it did for the Record’s news family.

The Show Must Go On. And it Did.

Even as he planned his mother’s funeral, and even with the newspaper’s assets containing the information needed for the following week’s paper still under police lock and key at that time, Record editor Meyer and his team met their deadline to publish the next week’s paper, just five days after the now infamous raid. “Seized… but not silenced,” was the memorable headline. And in what can only be described as a dose of poetic justice, KSHB reports, the Marion County Record has gained 2,000 new subscriptions since the raid – about double what it had before. Stick that in your holster, Chief.

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