A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Foundation to seek enforcement of open-records laws against sheriffs.
By REYNA GOBEL AND JACOB TAYLOR
Sheriffs are key law enforcement officers in Texas, charged with enforcing state laws from the Panhandle to the coast. But a student journalist effort supported by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas has found at least 74 sheriffs who appear to be violating the state’s public information law — and have been doing so for six months or more, despite repeated attempts to get them to follow it.
And that could lead to legal troubles for some sheriffs, according to open-records experts and officials with the Texas attorney general’s office.
College journalism students around the state over the last six months gathered information from Texas sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies about their use of Tasers, the increasingly controversial weapons that shock people into submission — and sometimes into worse than that. The research was sponsored by the FOI foundation’s Light of Day project, the Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism’s Distributed Reporting Project, and Fort Worth Weekly,
The students’ research, as reported in the Weekly’s cover story of March 8 (“A Stunning Toll), showed that the purportedly non-lethal Tasers have been involved repeatedly in deaths, including many instances in which the person the weapon was used on was not threatening violence or suspected of any serious crime. In fact, Texas has racked up more Taser-related deaths than all but three other states in the country — including four deaths of persons in Fort Worth police custody, the most of any city in the state. The research also showed that many law enforcement agencies across the state — including several county jails — are using Tasers like high-tech disciplinary tools — a purpose that a TASER International official said the weapons are not designed for — and not as the alternate to guns in life-or-death situations, for which they are intended. Although TASER officials and others insist that the weapons are not lethal, humanitarian groups and some medical examiners and scientific researchers believe that the shocks from the weapons have contributed to many deaths.
Exactly how many Texas sheriff’s departments are using Tasers and for what purposes still isn’t known, however, because 74 of the state’s 254 sheriffs did not respond to the students’ requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act. The requests were made via letters sent out in September, and those who had not responded were sent follow-up letters in early February. “It’s disturbing that many sheriffs have just ignored law. My hope is that they just didn’t receive the letters originally, and it’s not just a blatant ignoring of it,” said Katherine Garner, executive director of the FOI foundation.
In Wise County, Chief Deputy Doug Whitehead remembered the February letter and said that, a month later, his department was still working on the response. Government agencies are required to respond to open-records requests within 10 working days, even if all of the requested records have not been gathered by that time. Whitehead said a written response would go out within the next week.
Another nine sheriffs asked the state attorney general’s office for a ruling on whether the requested information had to be released. In three of those cases, the sheriffs have been told by the attorney general’s office that they must release the records, but they have not done so. Other sheriffs asked for fees — some amounting to thousands of dollars — that are not allowed to be charged under the information act.
“Our next step is to file complaints with the attorney general’s office for the agencies that have not complied with the AG rulings immediately,” Garner said. “For those that didn’t respond to our original requests, we will be sending certified letters next week, so we will know for sure that they received the request. If they don’t respond to the certified letter in the required 10 business days, we will file complaints promptly.”
There are penalties for government officials who violate the records act. If citizens don’t get appropriate responses when they ask for records, they can file complaints with the attorney general, who can file suit. Attorney General Greg Abbott has been active in enforcing open-government laws, including filing a civil suit against Upsher County for refusing to release records on a shooting that involved a law enforcement officer. The suit was withdrawn when county officials complied.
The fact that a rural county or small town has limited staff doesn’t remove their responsibility to respond, said Tom Kelley, a spokesman for Abbott. “We are not here to babysit and play nursemaid,” he said. If government officials don’t respond promptly, “We can take action, and we will.”
Mitchell County Sheriff Patrick Toombs is president of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. He’s also one of the sheriffs who failed to respond to the students’ requests for records — and he wasn’t available for comments on either score. Steve Westbrook, executive director of the association, said that, in small-population counties, sheriffs can’t sit in their offices and push paper all the time. “They have to get out there and work,” he said, and that’s what Toombs does.
Garner said some counties did a “terrific job” of fulfilling the records requests. “Armstrong County not only provided the data in a timely fashion, but [the sheriff] even looked up last year’s Light of Day Project to see what we were doing,” she said. “The sheriff from San Patricio County commented how nice it was to see young people become interested in the daily events witnessed by law enforcement officers and thanked us for our civic awareness.”
Garner noted that those involved in the Taser research project didn’t move as quickly as they could have, either, when the students’ requests were ignored or when county officials asked for clarifications. “In a lot of these cases, we didn’t follow up like we should have,” she said. The foundation usually encourages people seeking public records to send their requests by certified mail, so that there’s a record of the letters being received. In this case, she said, that wasn’t done on the first round of letters because the scope of the project made the cost prohibitive. “We didn’t, quite honestly, expect the project to be this large,” she said.
Texas officials who violate the open records law through ignorance won’t have an excuse much longer. State Sen. Jeff Wentworth authored a bill that now requires all government officials to receive education on that topic. “The attorney general came to me and said they were receiving thousands and thousands and thousands of phone calls and requests for information about the open meetings law and the public information act,” the San Antonio Republican said. There was “clear evidence,” he said, “that local officials didn’t understand basic fundamental requirements of those two acts that regulate their conduct.” Now officials can receive a free DVD that provides the training, he said, and he expects to see compliance improve.
“It is human nature — especially in a rural county when you’ve been the district clerk, the sheriff, or the county clerk for 20 years — to think those records are yours,” Wentworth said. “We just need to remind them that they belong to the people of Texas ... . When you or I show up for a copy of our records, they should be provided to us as soon as possible.” l
The Taser documents obtained by the students are available online, for use — with appropriate credit — by other news organizations. They can be found at http://mayborninstitute.unt.edu/academics/dist_rep.htm.
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