At a time when the use of force by police officers is under greater scrutiny than ever, the family of Stanley Leger remains trapped in a frustrating dilemma: It doesn't know if it has grounds to sue the city of Beaumont for his death last June ... because the city is withholding much of the evidence that could shed light on the deadly confrontation. That potential evidence includes, incredibly, a video camera taken from Leger's own house on the night of the shooting.Between concealing misconduct for which officers or the department may be civilly liable and thwarting prosecutor's obligation to turn over mitigation evidence to the defense, the secret police personnel files in civil service cities are thwarting justice on multiple fronts.
Cases like this reveal a gap in the state's Public Information Law that should be closed.
Police departments currently do not have to disclose investigatory work if the officers involved in a dispute weren't disciplined or charged with a criminal offense. That includes, by the way, a letter of reprimand, an action that is regarded as discipline in any other personnel context.
Part of the reasoning behind this portion of the law is sound. It is designed to protect officers when invalid complaints are filed against them. Yet the law almost gives police departments an incentive not to discipline officers so that the details of controversial cases can remain locked up.
As Grits wrote earlier, the legislative fix is easy: "Just eliminate (f) and (g) in Local Government Code 143.089 to open those records to the same extent as at county sheriffs and hundreds of other Texas law enforcement agencies." The political calculus for achieving that, by contrast, has been more difficult, but that may be changing, too.