Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

There’s a lot of resistance to releasing information about Uvalde

Wow.

The City of Uvalde and its police department are working with a private law firm to prevent the release of nearly any record related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, according to a letter obtained by Motherboard in response to a series of public information requests we made. The public records Uvalde is trying to suppress include body camera footage, photos, 911 calls, emails, text messages, criminal records, and more.

“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” the city’s lawyer, Cynthia Trevino, who works for the private law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The city wrote the letter asking Paxton for a determination about what information it is required to release to the public, which is standard practice in Texas. Paxton’s office will eventually rule which of the city’s arguments have merit and will determine which, if any, public records it is required to release.

The letter makes clear, however, that the city and its police department want to be exempted from releasing a wide variety of records in part because it is being sued, in part because some of the records could include “highly embarrassing information,” in part because some of the information is “not of legitimate concern to the public,” in part because the information could reveal “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime,” in part because some of the information may cause or may “regard … emotional/mental distress,” and in part because its response to the shooting is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Uvalde County District Attorney.

The letter explains that Uvalde has at least one in-house attorney (whose communications it is trying to prevent from public release), and yet, it is using outside private counsel to deal with a matter of extreme importance and public interest. Uvalde’s city government and its police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

The city says that it has received 148 separate public records requests (including several from Motherboard), and has lumped all of them together, making a broad legal argument as to why it should not be required to respond to many of them. Earlier this week, Motherboard reported on a similar letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which wanted to suppress body-camera footage because it could expose “weaknesses” in police response to crimes that criminals could exploit. (The main seeming weakness in the Uvalde response was that police, in violation of standard policy and protocol, refused to risk their lives to protect children.)

For example, the city and its police department argue that it should be exempted from releasing “police officer training guides, policy and procedure manuals, shift change schedules, security details, and blueprints of secured facilities,” because these could be used to decipher “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime.”

That argument sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gosh, I wonder what Ken Paxton will say. Also, it would be good to know how much the city of Uvalde is paying for those outside attorneys.

Here’s more on the same topic:

In the past week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined the growing list of state and local officials fighting the release of records that could help bring clarity to how the emergency response unfolded during last month’s deadly shooting in Uvalde.

The governor’s office strayed from that broader opposition Monday, granting a request under the Texas Public Information Act from a Houston television station that sought the handwritten notes he used when he first spoke publicly about the shooting. The notes appear to support Abbott’s claim that he was misled when he initially praised law enforcement efforts during the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two educators and left many more injured.

The recent release by Abbott underscores both the tremendous power government officials have to decide what is in the public interest and the unwillingness to release records that could call their agencies’ actions into question.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have submitted about 70 public information requests that could help answer larger questions as state and local leaders continue to offer conflicting accounts about why law enforcement did not confront the gunman sooner during the May 24 massacre. Those requests include 911 audio recordings, body and police car camera footage, and communications among local, state and federal agencies. The newsrooms also requested use-of-force documents, death records and ballistic reports.

Three weeks after the shooting, government officials have not provided the news organizations a single record related to the emergency response.

[…]

Abbott’s office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Marshals Service and the city of Uvalde are asking the state’s attorney general for permission to withhold records that may offer tangible answers to the contradictory accounts. (Under Texas law, agencies seeking to avoid disclosure of public records typically must make their case to the attorney general.) Other government entities have asked the state for extensions as they decide whether to fight such disclosures. News organizations across the country are reporting similar responses.

Among the arguments provided by government entities for withholding such documents is one from DPS stating that releasing records like footage from body cameras would provide criminals with “invaluable information” about its investigative techniques, information sharing and criminal analysis.

In most cases, however, the agencies argue that releasing such information could interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations by the federal government and the Texas Rangers, an arm of DPS now tasked with investigating its own department. In a statement, Abbott’s office said that, upon completion of the investigations, “we look forward to the full results being shared with the victims’ families and the public, who deserve the full truth of what happened that tragic day.”

But timely disclosure of the records is paramount given the lack of transparency and contradictory accounts from state and local officials, three Texas Public Information Act experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Laura Prather, a First Amendment attorney in Texas, said the reason the state allows agencies to withhold information when it is part of an ongoing investigation is to protect someone who was accused of a crime but didn’t ultimately get convicted, “not to protect law enforcement for their actions in circumstances like this, where the shooter is dead.”

“The public has the right to know what happened that day, and right now they can only act on rumors and conflicting information,” said Prather, who is representing ProPublica in an unrelated defamation lawsuit. She said law enforcement must be transparent in order to earn the public’s trust, but agencies are instead using their discretionary powers “to thwart the public from getting information that they are rightly entitled to.”

Because state law allows government officials to withhold information in cases that don’t result in a conviction, it creates a loophole that lets governments deny records in cases where the offender was killed and will not be tried.

That results in a challenge for members of the public seeking records related to Uvalde because “either way, there is a statutory basis for these governmental bodies to seek to withhold information,” said Jim Hemphill, an attorney who serves on the board of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation.

We’ve heard about the “dead suspect” loophole before. I have a modicum of sympathy for withholding some information during an active criminal investigation, but here we already know who did it and there won’t ever be a criminal trial, at least not for him. Especially given the sheer amount of contradictory information that has been out there, we really deserve a lot of timely disclosure.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has talked about addressing that loophole in the next legislative session. Maybe there are some other items for them to address as well.

Members of the Uvalde Police Department are refusing to cooperate with a Texas House committee probing the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary School shooting, the Express-News reports.

In comments Thursday, Committee Chairman Dustin Burrows — a Republican state rep from Lubbock — said Uvalde school district police department personnel were providing testimony to the three-member panel, according to the daily.

“There is a question mark, however, about the Uvalde Police Department itself, about whether or not they will visit with us voluntarily,” the lawmaker added. “We’ll see if they do that.”

The committee is in Uvalde for two days to hear closed-door testimony about the May 24 mass shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. Even if Uvalde police officers don’t voluntarily testify, the committee has the power to issue subpoenas, the Express-News reports.

You have the power to compel their cooperation, or at least to make it a lot more painful to not cooperate. I’m just saying.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.