Friday, April 13, 2007

House Shouldn't Close DPS Misconduct Records

After watching the wonderful performance of Texas legislators yesterday on the House floor debating HB 855, I almost dare this morning to harbor renewed hope that some of the more egregious bad bills on police accountability might still receive a more thorough vetting after they leave commitee.

One such piece of legislation set for next Tuesday's House calendar deserves such heightened scrutiny, HB 1422 by Driver which would make officer misconduct records secret at the Texas Department of Public Safety. (See my previous write up of the bill here.) 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 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 Informatin Act, which is quite generous about what records are available to the public. However, thanks to a 1989 statute won by police uions 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.

HB 1422 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. The bill deserves to be shot down.

Supporters argue that some information may be misinterpreted or misused, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. If more than 2,400 Texas law enforcement agencies - including DPS for its entire history - can operate under greater transparency requirements, I see no reason to change that now.

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