Many U.S. jails release surveillance video, almost routinely, to shed light on a prisoner's death. Not in Texas, though, where county sheriffs use – more accurately, misuse – a sweeping exemption to state open-records law. It allows them to withhold practically any video that local officials can, somehow, tie to terrorism.
In ruling on open-records requests for video, the Texas Attorney General's Office has little choice but to uphold the law and rule against the public whenever local government cites the exemption for terrorism-related security systems.
Texas legislators can fix the problem by amending the state's open-records law to remove this ridiculously broad exemption, part of the Texas Homeland Security Act. Only they can stop local government's misuse of state law to conceal video that in no way compromises public safety.
Section 418.182 of Texas code empowers local government to withhold video that “relates to the specifications, operating procedures, or location of a security system used to protect public or private property from an act of terrorism.”
In truth, sheriffs could argue their entire jails protect property from terrorism. Hazy language in this section of Texas open-records law amounts to a virtual blank check for sheriffs to withhold jail video from the public. In a democracy, the burden rightly rests with government to show, directly, why the release of information poses a significant risk.
With more than 100 deaths a year in Texas jails, legislators ought to ask themselves where the real threat to public safety lies.
Jailhouse video can supply invaluable information, as the highly publicized investigation of Jeffrey Epstein's Aug. 10 death shows. Surveillance video from the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York shows that guards never made some of the checks on Epstein, 66, that were noted in the log, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
Across the country, falsifying jail logs is one of the easiest and most widely used ways to cover negligence, incompetence, or misconduct. That's one reason the Herald-Press filed more than a dozen open-records requests, with four local and state agencies, for video related to the June 15, 2018, death of Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome.
The sheriff's office denied the initial request by the Herald-Press on Aug. 23. Almost incredibly, the office stated the tape “has already been recorded over.” Ten months later, responding to another request, the sheriff's office cited security reasons for withholding the video.
A week ago, the Texas Attorney General's Office ruled that section 418.182 of the government code gives Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor the right to withhold surveillance video related to Newsome's death.
Newsome, 50, died in a holding cell, nearly seven hours after the Palestine Regional Medical Center alerted the jail nurse of her blood test results. Those results indicated she could die without immediate medical attention.
A recently completed investigation by the Texas Rangers also found Anderson County Jail staff attempted to use a malfunctioning defibrillator on Newsome, after she became unresponsive at about 5 p.m.
The Texas Rangers' report indicates Anderson County jailers logged checks on Newsome at the required 15-minute intervals, but time-stamped video is the only way to confirm that.
No security breaches
Withholding jailhouse video is not done everywhere.
Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp, of Toledo, Ohio, said Ohio sheriffs, without fuss, release jail video after a prisoner dies. In an interview Thursday, he cited a death five years ago in the Lucas County Jail. Surveillance video showed one of his jailers had falsified logs and not made required checks on the prisoner.
Jailhouse video generally does not threaten security, Tharp said.
Video surveillance of jails often goes viral on the Internet, including footage related to Sandra Bland's high-profile 2015 death in the Waller County Jail in Texas. Nothing in those videos could reasonably be construed as a security threat.
Jail surveillance video typically shows a cell's exterior. Occasionally, jailers can be seen walking by. Because the video is recording close to the cell, it does not reveal the cell's location within the jail.
That said, if a particular video really undermines public safety, sheriffs can make the case, under Texas law, for withholding it, without resorting to a sweeping exemption that allows them to conceal nearly every video they don't want the public to see.
Tharp, a lifelong law enforcement officer and decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, expressed surprise when told Texas sheriffs typically do not release jail video surveillance.
“How do they get away with that?” Tharp asked a Herald-Press editor who has known him for five years.
That's an excellent question only the Texas Legislature can answer.