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TAB helps advance law enforcement records bill, fights defense on other measures

The Texas Senate has sent a bill to the House that would make public the records of a campus police department at a private college or university.

SB 308, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, one of four TAB newsroom legislative priority bills, was adopted by a 31-0 vote.  

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, will now shepherd the measure through the lower chamber. 

Coleman filed the House companion bill, HB 2060, which is in the House Higher Education Committee. 

TAB, the Texas Press Association and Freedom of Information of Texas are hoping for a House hearing on SB 308 very soon.

Whitmire filed the bill in response to an incident involving the Rice University campus police. 

In late 2013, KPRC-TV investigative reporter Robert Arnold reported on the severe beating of a suspected bike thief at the hands of campus police. 

The off-campus incident was captured on police dash camera video. 

A whistleblower provided the video to the station.  

When Arnold and KPRC attempted to follow up on the incident with the University, Rice officials refused to disclose its records saying the private school was not subject to the Texas Public Information Act.

In San Antonio, local media encountered similar roadblocks when investigating the 2013 fatal shooting of a student by a University of the Incarnate Word police officer.  

Just last week the audio of the incident was finally released after more than a year of the local media’s efforts to acquire it and only after a grand jury no-billed the officer involved in the incident.

There are more than 20 private universities and colleges in Texas with some form of campus police department.

TAB was expecting and had prepared testimony for a hearing last week on HB 2918 by Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, a bill that would have restricted citizens’ (and in certain circumstances, newsrooms’) right to record officers’ actions. 

TAB, TPA and the National Press Photographers Association met with Villalba to discuss concerns about the bill, but a committee substitute of the measure released later in the week still presented problems for newsrooms and the general public. 

The legislation was pulled from the House Select on Emerging Issues in Law Enforcement Committee’s agenda at Villalba’s request said Chairman Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball.  

The Associated Press reported that the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest law enforcement group, also had problems with the bill. 

CLEAT’s executive director, Charley Wilkison, told AP that Villalba indicated he was pulling the bill permanently during a bill discussion phone call.

Earlier in the session, Villalba abandoned HJR 55, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have prohibited local government from interfering “in any way a person’s free exercise of religion” after receiving numerous complaints from Texas businesses.

In other action since the last issue of the TABulletin, Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, has pulled one of the more troubling measures filed this session.

HB 2766 would have made the dates of birth contained in government records confidential. 

Burkett’s staff told the Dallas Morning News that the proposal “seemed to create too many problems and block the flow of information that the public has an interest in.”  

Newsrooms use DOB information to distinguish between individuals with the exact same name as well as in database-based reporting. 

For example, TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee members Brian Collister and Joe Ellis of KXAN-TV have used DOB information to identify governmental employees with criminal backgrounds.  

Their examples include a school bus driver with a DWI conviction, a janitor convicted of delivery of a controlled substance and several teachers convicted of indecency with a child.

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