Law Enforcement Lobby Blocking Family Access to Info About Deceased Suspects

HomeOpen GovernmentLaw Enforcement Lobby Blocking Family Access to Info About Deceased Suspects

Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas persuades Governor Abbott’s office to threaten veto

A House amendment to legislation that would have eliminated an existing exception that allowed law enforcement agencies to withhold information to the family of a deceased suspect was not accepted by Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) May 20.

Joe Moody
Joe Moody

On the floor of the Texas Senate (seen in the above photo) Watson rejected the amendment offered by House Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody (D-El Paso) and approved by the House. Watson said, “SB 944 is the Public Information Act Omnibus Bill. The House (through amendments) added two other bills to this one and the Governor’s Office had asked us to keep the bill clean.” In other words, Watson retreated in the face of a likely veto to reach the overarching goals of SB 944 and SB 943 that together will make huge improvements in access to government records under the Texas Public Information Act.

“Therefore I move the Senate not concur and appoint a Conference Committee.” The five-member committee chaired by Watson was immediately appointed.

This afternoon, Watson’s policy director, Kate Alexander, told The Austin Bulldog that the House and Senate committees are “chatting” and “there is movement on the Moody language.” However the final language is “still a work in progress.”

“I doubt we will get resolution on this today,” Alexander said.

Moody, in winning his House amendment to SB 944, said, “At the end of the day, people need the truth, even if it’s ugly and complicated and challenging,” according to a press release issued by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

CLEAT prompted governor’s opposition

Charley Wilkinson

Charley Wilkinson, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), told The Austin Bulldog that he testified against the Moody Amendment.

But he did more than that.

“I did go to the Governor’s Office and asked them to use whatever influence they had to strip the Moody Amendment,” Wilkinson said. “I asked them to do that, to assist, and it’s my understanding governor’s office did so.”

He said that CLEAT’s opposition was based because the amendment “would allow release of information related to a peace officer who is the subject of a criminal or internal investigation.”

Indeed, Moody’s original HB 147 would, in fact, have permitted such release of a peace officer’s file but that bill was sent to the Calendars Committee April 25, 2019, and never emerged. And that language was carried over into the Moody Amendment to SB 944.

“It’s not that we don’t want the family to see how the death of a person who died occurred,” Wilkinson said. “But we are opposed to a defense attorney receiving a file with unsubstantiated claims against an officer.”

Nevertheless, on May 28, Moody succeeded in gaining House support to add an amendment to Watson’s SB 944 that would have given families the right of access to information about suspects who died in custody before their case was adjudicated, along with access to the officer’s file regarding “alleged misconduct” under Section 143.089 of the Local Government Code. The later provision drew CLEAT’s opposition and the threat of a veto.

The Austin Bulldog requested a comment from Representative Moody’s office at 1:26pm Thursday but received no response. (Update added 12:13am March 24, 2019.)

Family access through another bill?

Charles “Doc” Anderson

Wilkinson said families would get access to the information about the death of a loved one in custody through HB 4236, authored by Representative Charles “Doc” Anderson (R-Waco), which CLEAT supported.

That bill has been approved in both the House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature.

But HB 4236 allows families of a person who is deceased only to view body worn camera recordings and then only if “the law enforcement agency determines that the viewing furthers a law enforcement purpose.”

Further, HB 4236 prohibits a person who views the body camera recording from either duplicating the recording or capturing video or audio from the recording.

Not only does HB 4236 provide very limited access to body camera video but it also provides no access at all to the range of other information about the death of a person in custody that would be available under the Moody Amendment, including any “information, records or notations.”

Further, HB 4236 may provide less access to body camera video than existing statutes.

Section 1701.655 of the Occupations Code already sets forth a policy for body worn cameras, including “guidelines for public access, through open records requests, to recordings that are public information.” It also allows an officer to access a recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident.

In any case, language in the Moody Amendment would provide absolute access to a range of information—not just body camera footage—that pertains to the case of people who die while in custody before their cases are adjudicated. Under the Amendment agencies would no longer be able to claim the law enforcement exception to withhold such information about dead suspects.

Families need closure

Fatima Mann

Fatima Mann of the Community Advocacy and Healing Project is a volunteer who helps families of suspects who die in custody.

“When suspects die in custody because of officer involved shootings, families have to navigate the criminal justice system while mourning their child and planning a funeral. I aid in being a bridge and helping explain the process,” she told The Austin Bulldog.

Mann said she also organizes rallies, marches, and social media campaigns; advocates for and informs the community; and seeks justice for the person who died.

Larry Eugene Jackson Jr.

Mann said she started doing this work when she learned about the 2013 Austin police killing of Larry Eugene Jackson Jr., whose parents and wife filed a federal wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against the City of Austin. The Austin American-Statesman reported September 22, 2016, that the City Council approved a $600,000 settlement. The city previously agreed in August 2014 to pay $1.25 million to the Jackson’s three children, the report stated.

Mann said that under the Moody Amendment families and their attorneys would be able to view video and other evidence and that would help with litigation.

Sandra Bland

As another example of the need for family access to evidence, Mann said that Sandra Bland’s own cell phone video that was only recently released. That brief video was shown as part of a story reported May 6, 2019, by Dallas TV station WFAA and the Investigative Network’s chief investigative reporter Brian Collister, who obtained the video when the investigation was finally completed.

Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was found hanged in her Waller County jail cell July 13, 2015, three days after being arrested and charged with assaulting a Texas Department of Public Safety officer in connection with a traffic stop. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Bland’s mother settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and police for $1.9 million and some procedural changes, according to the Wikipedia account of this incident.

Up until Bland’s own video was made public the only video record of the incident in which the officer threatened to “light up” Bland with a Taser was from the dashboard camera on his cruiser.

Bland’s own video appeared to show that she was not a threat to the officer, as he had claimed.

Garnet Coleman

State Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), chair of the House County Affairs Committee, is scheduled to hold a hearing Friday May 24, 2019, to address Bland’s video. Both her family and their attorneys say they were not provided the video during the discovery process in the lawsuit. The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Attorney General denied they withheld the evidence, according to WFAA report. 

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Related Bulldog coverage:

Legislation to open government records: Seven bills already filed in legislative  session would allow more access to public information, February 25, 2019

Texas Sunshine Coalition seeks greater transparency: Sixteen organizations join efforts to overcome unfavorable court decisions that block access to vital information that should be public, January 7, 2019

City launched a new software system for responding to public information requests: Requestors can set up a customer account and then track requests through city website, June 14, 2018

City of Austin Fighting Transparency: On eve of third Open Government Symposium, City opposing court decisions and open records, February 6, 2018

Public Information Now Harder to Get: Despite lengthy negotiations and compromise most open government legislation was blocked in 2017 Texas legislative session, October 16, 2017

Big Win for Public’s Right to Know: No more hiding identities of public officials who do government business on private emails, April 11, 2016

Surfing New Wave Open Government: Symposium panelist says local efforts show potential but Austin not open government leader, April 23, 2015

Ethics Bills Face Complex Dynamics: Open government legislation would move public official investigations, open financial reports, April 20, 2015

Open Government Aids Defendants Too: Criminal cases opened through Michael Morton Act makes big difference for prosecutors as well, April 15, 2015

County Attorney Reports Lessons Learned: His investigation of Austin City Council’s open meetings violations resulted in improvements, April 15, 2015

Why Acting Ethically, Legally Matters: Many a high-profile scandal persisted for years because nobody stepped forward, April 14, 2015

City Holding Open Government Symposium: Continuing legal education credits for lawyers and great information for advocates of open government, April 8, 2015

Appeals Court Demands Email Release: Third Court of Appeals decision once again requires emails on private accounts to be released, March 10, 2015

Want More Open Government? Key lawmaker and nonprofit advocacy group pitch for public support on pending legislation, March 19, 2015

Litigation Challenges Open Government Laws: Attorneys criticize criminal penalties and public access to elected officials’ private email accounts, April 24, 2013 (Part 3 of a 3-Part Series)

Social Media’s Impact on Open Government: Few government organizations have dealt with how Facebook, Twitter use affects compliance, April 23, 2013 (Part 2 of a 3-Part Series)

City Hosts Open Government Symposium: Lawyers attending for education credits abound, much of day has little to do with city practices, April 22, 2013 (Part 1 of a 3 Part Series)

City Hosting Open Government Symposium: Follows county attorney’s investigation of City Council open meetings violations, March 19, 2013

Trust indicators:

Photo of Ken MartinKen Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page.

Email [email protected].

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