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Interim committees study Open Government-related issues

Although it is an election year, Texas Senate and House committees are at work studying various issues identified by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas, and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Among the hundreds of interim charges set forth by Patrick and Straus last fall are a handful of Open Government-related issues of interest to newsrooms.

An Open Government-related House charge is set for a public hearing on March 21 in Austin.

The House Select Committee on Emerging Issues in Law Enforcement, chaired by retiring Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, will review the implementation of police body cameras and the use of state funds to acquire them that were set for in SB 158, passed by the Legislature in 2015. 

SB 158, by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, established a grant program through the governor's office for local law enforcement agencies to help defray the cost of body worn cameras for law enforcement officers and set forth requirements for law enforcement agency policies for the cameras.

Although the point of having body cameras is to ensure transparency by police (and citizen interaction with police), Open Government advocates fought a losing battle in the session to keep the recordings always subject to release.

Recordings documenting an incident involving the use of deadly force by a peace officer or that were related to a criminal or administrative investigation of an office may not be deleted, destroyed, or released to the public until all criminal matters had been finally adjudicated and all investigations concluded.

The provision is similar to the so-called “law enforcement exception” in the Texas Public Information Act which say law enforcement records may by withheld if they are part of an ongoing investigation or prosecution of a crime, similar to most law enforcement records.  

In many instances, newsrooms have seen the release of much dash camera video and are hopeful that it will be a similar experience with body camera video.

SB 158 prohibited the release of certain types of recordings, including ones made in private spaces and those involving fine-only misdemeanors that do not result in arrests.

These recordings may be released upon consent of the subject of the recording.

Another issue was the length of time the recordings must be stored for review.

Like dash camera video, body camera video must be retained for a period of 90 days.

TAB does not expect any wholesale committee recommendations for a change in the release of the recordings but the committee will review the issues of data storage and records retention under the TPIA.

The committee will meet at 9 am in E2.010 of the Capitol Extension.

Questions? Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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