As drug task forces around Texas are closing up shop this month, the Chronicle ran an editiorial Monday ("Shine a light," March 12) praising a series of ACLU open records requests that partly led to their demise. Those requests were filed on behalf of ACLU of Texas' police accountability project, which I head, and led to publication this public policy report (pdf) criticizing the task forces' flawed structure. Wrote the Chronicle:
That's pretty fun, don't you think? The legislation they're talking about was HB 1239 passed last year, of which regular Grits readers are well aware. Since the Austin Statesman is spending so-called "Sunshine Week" bashing Austin's open government online proposal on the May ballot, it's nice to see a newspaper actually come out in favor of open records. (Statesman editors appear to favor open records laws only so long as nobody but their reporters ever use them.)
The search process — the filing of petitions and persistence when requests are denied or delayed — can have striking results. About four years ago, the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union studied drug task forces, federally funded, state-controlled units assigned to fight narcotics crimes. Trying to understand their complex structure, the nonprofit filed a public information request for the task forces' arrest statistics, broken down by ethnicity.
No one in state government had ever asked for such data, so the group paid for its own computer analysis. The results showed rampant ethnic discrimination. Last year, partly because of that records request and the state research that followed, Gov. Rick Perry signed a law stripping the units' seized assets unless they followed stringent procedures.
Making use of public records takes vigilance, patience and persistence. It takes a curious personality to file petitions, crunch numbers and study fine print, but the unencumbered right to do so protects everyone.
Want to file your own open records request? Vince has a good post and sample letter on the topic here, and see also this Grits discussion from last year.