Police records: Are Amarilloans in the dark on crime?

By Russell Anglin and Matt Hutchison
Amarillo Globe-News
Originally published Oct. 11, 2014

On most days at the Amarillo Police Department, someone sifts through a maze of reports determining what the public should know about crime in the city.

After the department determines what’s “newsworthy,” a summary is written about those incidents — usually 10 to 20 a week — and made available to the public.

So who’s making the decisions on what the public should and shouldn’t know about police activities and crime?

When it comes to police information, it’s Amarillo police officers themselves who determine what will be reported about their own activities and what information will be kept from the public eye — or at the very least — challenging to obtain.

Is the fox guarding the proverbial hen house?

Or do the police simply lack the resources to keep the public informed in a timely manner?

For decades, open records laws nationwide and in Texas have helped the public obtain government records as a means to watch over taxpayer-funded agencies.

But freedom of information advocates say they’ve noticed an alarming trend of police departments placing procedural and other roadblocks to the people’s right to know.

“They have the power to beat us up, to Tase us, to shoot us, to incarcerate us, to take our property,” said David Cuillier, Society of Professional Journalists freedom of information chairman. “That’s why in this country, we’ve always had (records) open, so they can’t hurt people in secret.”

The Texas Public Information Act guarantees access to public records of government bodies at all levels in Texas. It gives citizens the right to access records without having to declare a purpose in doing so. All government information is presumed to be available to the public.

“The law basically says things that are clearly public records, they are to produce as soon as practical or as soon as possible,” Texas Press Association Vice President Donnis Baggett said.

According to Texas Press Association, a 1976 court challenge by the Houston Chronicle set the standard for what should be clearly public: “Basic information that ordinarily appears on the first page of an offense report.”

According to the decision, that list can include everything from the name of the person involved to the weather conditions to a detailed description of the offense (see accompanying box for requirements).

Amarillo Police Department does not make the first page of an offense report immediately available to the public after it is filed. To look at a specific report requires a formal written request that the police can wait up to two weeks to acknowledge.

“Every record that is going to be released has to be vetted against whether or not it can be released by the Texas Open Records Act,” Police Chief Robert Taylor said. “We have a staff person who’s trained in the Texas Open Records Act and we have an attorney if that staff person is not sure whether it should be released, they can bump it up to the attorney.”

The policy keeps reports from reaching public eyes without an official review.

“Ultimately, it’s a practice that effectively censors access to hundreds of investigation reports filed each day,” said Les Simpson, publisher of the Amarillo Globe-News. “The problem is that the public is being denied timely information that could help them remain safer and be on guard for crime and criminals in their neighborhood. It could even help police apprehend suspects with the help of the public.”

Simpson said the lack of transparency with police reports prevents a level of accountability, not only for the police department, but for the community.

“There is no way to know who may be involved or what has happened unless we receive all the information that the law provides, and we receive it in a timely manner,” Simpson said. “Whether it’s a burglary or a violent crime or a simple trespassing incident, citizens should be informed of what’s happening in their community when it comes to crime.”

Police departments and other agencies contend they’re faced with a bevy of open records requests and that meeting the public’s demand for information is often difficult, expensive and time-
consuming.

Police Cpl. Jerry Neufeld said the bulk of time it takes to fulfill a records request is spent on what can be redacted — basically blacked out — from the report before it’s released. But some sensitive information — including the names of a suicide victim and the children who witnessed the act — was not removed from copies of incident reports filed July 3 and 4.

The Amarillo Globe-News received the more-than-500-page request response July 25, three weeks after submitting an open records request to the police department for the two-day period. Suicide vicitims and victims of sexual assault are redacted in Amarillo police reports to protect the families of those individuals, officials said.

“We agree with the police department that some things should not be made public and we’re not going to cross that line,” Simpson said. “But it shouldn’t be so difficult for the public to get information about crime in our community.”

The Texas Public Information Act gives a governmental body explicit permission to redact information in five categories without requesting an attorney general decision:

  • personal identification or driving records, including driver’s license or permit numbers, vehicle title or registration numbers, and ID card numbers
  • the home addresses, telephone numbers, emergency contact information, Social Security numbers, and/or family member information of public employees or officials
  • credit card, debit card, charge card or access device number collected, assembled or maintained by or for a governmental body
  • names and identifying information of victims of sexual assault or abuse and information maintained by a family violence shelter center, victims of trafficking shelter center or sexual assault program
  • identifying information, including home addresses, of any law enforcement officer

Any other omission requires an attorney general ruling before it can be withheld.

But open records advocates say there’s much more to the issue than redactions and staffing.

“The other element is government agencies have become much more sophisticated in controlling the message, hiring professional PR people to manage information and the message,” Cuillier said, “to control … how people or what people get, to avoid embarrassment … information getting out that would get someone fired.”

There are two officers who make the bulk of the decisions on what’s newsworthy for the department, Cpl. Jerry Neufeld and Sgt. Brent Barbee.

“Obviously, we can’t make a release on every incident that takes place, most of which is not probably going to be newsworthy to most entities,” Neufeld said.

“We read off shift reports and arrest reports for things that are unusual or maybe have a little more impact.”

If the department made all investigation reports public, personnel would have to review each one to redact sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers and names of victims in suicides, sexual assaults and crimes against children, Neufeld said.

Mayor Paul Harpole thinks the city handles information requests well and is adequately staffed most of the time to handle the number of requests the city gets.

“You never know who or when somebody is going to put in a request, but for most times we’re adequately staffed,” he said. “There could be a surge, and then you adapt. But you also don’t want people sitting around waiting for requests.”

While staff processes requests, elected officials also are educated when they take office on how the process works.

“When we’re first indoctrinated, we get information on open meetings and open records,” Harpole said. “When somebody requests, we frequently hear about it, especially if it concerns us.”

Police departments in most other similarly sized Texas cities also don’t publicly release incident reports, with one notable exception.

In Abilene, incident reports are available at the department’s front desk each day, officer George Spindler said. Anyone can sift through the reports, which provide a short narrative for each case filed.

“They’re utilized every day,” Spindler said. “It’s a form of communication to (reporters) so they know what’s going on there.”

APD’s records policy is “very open,” Neufeld said. Daily incident reports listing a case number and other information for every call are available on the department’s website, police.amarillo.gov, he said.

But that information doesn’t include the details of the call, making it impossible to know what case numbers to use to get only the reports listing violent crimes over a 24-hour period, for example.

“They really don’t tell you anything specific,” Simpson said. “Unless the police department decides to issue a release, the only way we know about the details is if someone contacts us outside of the police department or if we hear something unusual on the police scanner.”

And because of limited personnel, information about incidents deemed newsworthy by the department may not released until a day or two after the incident, especially on the weekend.

Just last weekend, for example, police were called about 3:35 a.m. Oct. 4 to a home near Amarillo Country Club on a burglary alarm call to find a homeowner had shot an intruder attempting to break in. No information was released about this incident until 1:06 p.m. the following Monday, Oct. 6.

Taylor said it’s difficult to determine if the department sends out an adequate number of daily news releases.

“I’m not sure how to judge that,” he said. “They’ll make news releases on things they think are newsworthy and then … if there’s a request by a news organization about something that has happened, then we’ll give them whatever information we can on that.”

On Friday, AGN Media filed a request to examine all police reports in a timely manner based on the laws of the Texas Freedom of Information Act and guidance according to the Texas Attorney General.