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Legislative session marked by fights over law enforcement records access

The mad dash of the final five weeks of the 2017 Texas Legislature is upon us.

One perennial battle under the red granite dome is shaping up on a number of fronts – the effort to close off access to law enforcement related records.

TAB has been successful in beating back one of those battles and we’re hoping to make some progress this week on another.

Two currently available types of law enforcement information, however, could soon be extremely difficult to access if lawmakers get their way – 9-1-1 recordings and dash camera videos.

First the good news.

In its original form, HB 1725 by Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, created a new exception in the Texas Public Information Act for personal information contained in traffic citations. 

The shielded personal information included home address or personal telephone number of the person who was issued the citation.  

Hernandez is trying to stop those issued citations from being solicited for business.

Broadcasters raised concerns that the bill would prevent certain types of reporting that benefits the public such as a recent award-winning investigative report that showed racial profiling was being covered up by law enforcement.

To her credit, Hernandez heard TAB and altered HB 1725 to include a media carve out for the information.

The House Government Transparency and Operations Committee this week will hear HB 3234 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a bill that would allow access to law enforcement information in cases in which all suspects involved in a case are deceased. 

It would close a loophole exploited by police to withhold information.

Dallas area newsrooms, for example, are still seeking information related to the tragic Dallas police shootings in which the lone suspect in the case was killed.

Because there can be no final court outcome in the case, the information can be and is being withheld.

Of immediate concern are two bills that have moved out of their originating committees and which would close off information that, for the most part, has been accessible in the past.

HB 3640 by Rep. Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would make confidential the recordings and transcripts of 9-1-1 calls.  

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety approved a committee substitute that allows release of the recordings if the person who made the call (or their legal representative) consents. 

The calls are often withheld under the so-called law enforcement exception in the Texas Public Information Act by claiming they are part of an ongoing investigation.

Such calls have been used by stations, however, to show faulty operations of publicly-funded 9-1-1 systems.

At a minimum, release of the transcripts should be allowed, regardless of the consent anyone involved in the call.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee has approved SB 1487 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, a general bill on racial profiling and the use of body and dash cameras.

Police department body camera footage is near impossible to access under current Texas law.

In its original form, this legislative proposal appeared to provide a mechanism for public release of some recordings and included provisions for retention of video in deadly force incidents. 

However, the committee substitute headed for the Senate floor would make it much more difficult to obtain dash cam recordings in various ways. 

With just 33 days left in the session, TAB is fighting for passage of these two positive proposals and will be working to improve or forestall the measures that could curtail a newsroom’s ability to report on the community.

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

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