Texas law enforcement agencies are using a loophole in the Public Information Act to conceal vital information about in-custody deaths. The exemption permits sheriffs, police chiefs, and district attorneys to withhold documents on cases that don't result in a criminal conviction or deferred adjudication --- even when a suspect dies.
To keep taxpayer-funded agencies accountable and transparent, neglect and incompetence should be subject to the same oversight and scrutiny as is criminal wrongdoing. Legislators ought to abolish this loophole in open government law, or at least amend it to require law enforcement to release information when a person consents to it, or is dead.
Negligence is not typically considered a crime, even when lethal. Thus, the so-called dead suspects loophole conceals information, even from family members, on practically all jail and other in-custody deaths.
Many of the more than 100 deaths a year in Texas jails involve negligence, a Herald-Press investigation found. Negligence includes ignoring prisoners' pleas and giving them the wrong medications. Another common failure is not checking on prisoners at required intervals, then falsifying observation logs to cover it up.
Neglect, misconduct, and indifference can also trigger costly federal wrongful death lawsuits, such as the one Anderson County now faces in Rhonda Newsome's 2018 death.
All of this matters.
Without the release in June of a Texas Rangers report, the public would not have known Newsome, 50, died in the Anderson County Jail nearly seven hours after the hospital informed medical staff she faced imminent death without immediate medical attention. Nor would readers have known medical staff tried to use an improperly stored defibrillator on Newsome that lacked adult pads and working batteries.
Anderson County officials and the public need information like that to correct mistakes and hold the jail's medical contractor accountable for its $210,000 annual contract.
Legislation often has unintended consequences. The Texas House and Senate in 1997 enacted the exemption to protect people's privacy – not to conceal information about how suspects died in jails.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, said her group will work with legislators next session to make information on in-custody deaths subject to public information law.
Eliminating the loophole, might need only a clarification from the Attorney General's Office.
In May, Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell, citing the exemption, withheld the Rangers report on Newsome's death, after a Grand Jury found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Later, however, the Department of Public Safety voluntarily released the investigative report on Newsome, as well as two dozen others, to the Herald-Press.
The release of the reports by DPS raises the question of whether the exemption meets the customary standards for concealing information under Texas law, such as posing a security threat.
Either way, given the rising number of in-custody deaths, the Freedom of Information Foundation and other open government advocates ought to make ending this senseless, and increasingly risky, exemption their top legislative priority.