Thursday, April 26, 2007

Governor should veto anti-accountability bill: Don't close DPS misconduct records

Most people go their entire lives without ever filing an open records request. Those of us who use that tool, though, do so on behalf of all the rest. Maintaining access to public information about the government is a critically important topic on which neither political party in this state has a good record. With the possible exception of Rep. Harold Dutton, who works on a lot of issues, there isn't a strong open government advocate in either Texas legislative chamber.

Jennifer Lafleur had an important column in yesterday's Dallas News ("Citizen Watchdog: Bills would hide employee histories," April 25) explaining all the wonky reasons why it's important to keep information about public employees open. Give it a read.

Fifteen years ago Texas had the first or second strongest public information act in the country, but dozens of nicks and cuts coupled with a couple of sawed off limbs have left our law in the middle of the pack regarding transparency, 18th according to an Investigative Reporters and Editors survey.

In the criminal justice arena, huge swaths of records that were public twenty years ago are closed today, including misconduct records at some but not all larger police departments and records about closed cases. Yet these are among the most commonly requested types of records, accounting for more than half of all open records appeals by government agencies to the Texas Attorney General.

This week a piece of truly bad legislation, SB 740 by Whitmire/Driver has finally passed the Legislature and was sent to Governor Perry's desk for his quite-likely signature. (See the House Research Organization's bill analysis.) Bottom line, it closes most records about misconduct committed by Department of Public Safety officers. As I described the bill earlier:
As usual the police unions, particularly the one representing troopers, are the main backers of secrecy bills on these topics - the only witnesses in favor of the bill at the committee hearing were three police union reps.

Currently Texas law enforcement has a two-tiered system regarding police misconduct records. More than 2,400 Texas law enforcement agencies, including 253 of 254 Sheriffs' Departments and most Texas police departments, fall under the Texas Public Information Act, which is quite generous about what records are available to the public. However, thanks to a 1989 statute won by police unions at the Legislature, those same records are closed at 73 Texas cities that have adopted the state civil service code (Chapter 143.o89(g) of the Local Government Code).

This has always been a personal beef of mine - most of these 73 cities opted into the civil service code via plebiscites in the '40s and '50s. Voters couldn't know that decades later the Legislature would reduce tranparency and open records access at those agencies. Nobody ever voted for that.

Anyway, for the 2,400+ agencies whose records are governed the Public Information Act, the complaint, investigative files and administrative outcomes resulting from every complaint are available after the investigation is closed. For the 73 civil service agencies, information about the vast majority of complaints, including about 2/3 of sustained complaints, aren't public at all, and for those handful where some information is released, it's often little more than a summarizing paragraph, typically on a single page, compared to detailed information available at most other Texas policing agencies.

[SB 783] would close officer misconduct records at DPS to the same extent they're closed at civil service cities - that's a huge reduction in transparency and accountability to the public.
DPS is the state's top law enforcement agency, responsible for wiretapping, border security, and the state's largest anti-drug operations. Reducing public accountability for its officers is a big mistake. The TYC debacle demonstrates ably that we can't trust government agencies to police themselves and need to leave journalists and advocates tools to see what's going on inside the black box. At least the bill Lafleur was describing closing records about employees' birthdays displayed good intentions, aiming to reduce identity theft. SB 783 isn't about identity theft at all, it's solely about keeping the public from knowing about complaints against DPS officers, even including most sustained allegations.

The Governor should veto SB 783 - if the TYC scandal taught us anything, it's that the Public Information Act can expose grave problems that state agencies would otherwise choose to ignore. DPS is too important for the public to lose those oversight tools.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

By every reasonable definition of "gang" police agencies qualify. They have a high incidence of violence, wear uniforms, and have a code of silence. They adopt an "us versus them" mentality not only towards other criminals but the public that bankrolls their activities. Why should we not give them maximum oversight?