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Report: Texas law enforcement agencies frequently violate FOI law

By The Associated Press


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TYLER, Texas — Law enforcement agencies throughout East Texas frequently violate the Texas Public Information Act, often responding to requests for information with personal questions, requests for identification and lectures about privacy, a 14-county survey shows.

County governments, meanwhile, fully cooperated with residents requesting basic public documents, according to the study conducted by the journalism department at the University of Texas at Tyler, the Longview News-Journal and The Tyler Courier-Times-Telegraph.

The survey, conducted from May through September, showed county employees produced information immediately without question in 100% compliance of state open-records laws.

Agents at sheriff's or police departments often resisted information requests, producing records 68% of the time, but complying only 36% of the time with a law limiting inquiries about requests.

In one case, a researcher was told she had to "earn" the right to see documents she requested. In some cases, written requests for basic offense reports were referred to attorneys, delayed or even ignored.

Researchers tested compliance with three legal requirements in 125 governmental entities including cities, counties, schools and law enforcement agencies.

Sixteen percent of the entities complied with all three requirements: posting a Texas Public Information Act notice, refraining from illegal questioning and producing the requested documents within the prescribed 10 working days.

City governments produced requested documents 87% of the time, but rated 41% concerning inquiries. Compliance rates for schools, including colleges and universities, hovered around 82% for producing records and rated from 20 to 24% concerning inquiries.

Overall, 46% of the entities posted the required notice.

The survey uncovered other violations, including copying charges even though researchers requested to only view documents and instances where the news media received special treatment.

Katherine Garner, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said she was impressed with county governments' compliance but disappointed in other entities.

"Its obvious more education is needed," Garner said in the Dec. 29 editions of the Tyler and Longview newspapers. "I would hope this noncompliance means they don't understand or don't know enough about it as opposed to ignoring the law."

A number of free or low-cost programs aimed at educating public officials on handling FOI requests already exist.

Confused government officials can phone advice hot lines, flip through a layman's guide to public information law or attend one of several conferences on the topic.

County judges are required by statute to attend training. But the challenge remains to make sure such training reaches employees at all levels.

"We'll have to be looking at ways to disseminate that information to employees," said incoming Smith County Judge Becky Dempsey. She said she would try to organize several training sessions to make sure that Smith County officials know how to correctly handle public information requests.

In Gregg County, as in all other counties surveyed, researchers were able to view a copy of the county's budget without question.

"To me, if you do things right, there's not much basis for a lawsuit or any kind of complaint," said County Judge Mickey Smith.

Researchers often found that answering improper questions was the first obstacle in obtaining records. With few exceptions, state law prohibits public employees from questioning the requester, but researchers often were asked to identify themselves, their employer, their reason for requesting information and whether they were with the news media.

At the Gladewater Police Department, a frowning dispatcher told a researcher she could not see any offense reports until she revealed "who you are with."

The researcher later spoke with Capt. Clay Robertson, who said he often asks questions about who is requesting reports so he can determine if the requester "needs to know."

"You just don't know what people are doing with this stuff," said Robertson, who then lectured the researcher about the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

In other situations, a researcher had to complete a request form before obtaining public information. Garner said public entities may ask for the form to be completed, but it's not required to receive information.

Researchers had the most difficulty obtaining offense reports or jail logs from law enforcement agencies.

Under the Public Information Act, information such as the name, age, and address of an arrested person, the offense charged, details of the arrest or crime, bonding information and the identification and description of the complainant are open to the public.

Researchers often were denied access to this information because the cases were considered "open" or "still under investigation," not legal exemptions.

At the Gilmer Police Department, an officer told a researcher she could not obtain the records "without a subpoena."

"We just dropped the ball on it, basically, is all I can tell you," Gilmer Police Chief James Grunden said later.

Kilgore College Police Chief William "Bill" Lewis told a researcher he does not release the names of people involved in offense reports.

"I will not share an offense report with anybody unless there is a specific reason to do so, particularly if it involves a student," he said.

Lewis said his policy concerning students names complies with the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. A 1992 amendment, however, clearly states that law enforcement records — even ones involving students — are not exempt from disclosure.


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