Bill aims to make police at private universities more transparent

By Drew Joseph
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Jan. 16, 2015

A bill from a powerful state senator aims to make police departments at private universities, such as the one at the University of the Incarnate Word, subject to the same public records law that applies to other law enforcement agencies.

The measure from state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, would specify that campus police departments are governmental bodies even if they are at a private institution.

The Texas Public Information Act now shields private university police departments from releasing certain records that other taxpayer-funded agencies would have to make public.

“Their police are licensed by the state of Texas, so they ought to be covered like other police departments,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire’s bill, S.B. 308, comes in response to an August 2013 incident in which Rice University police officers struck a bicycle thief with batons. The university did not release records to the media or Whitmire’s office in response to public records requests, arguing it was exempt because it is a private university.

A grand jury declined to indict the officers in March.

“We had no way of knowing whether it was reasonable force or what the description was in the police department,” Whitmire said.

UIW cited the Texas Public Information Act following the December 2013 fatal shooting of a student by a campus police officer when it refused to release its department’s use-of-force policy or procedures for what happens after force is used.

Whitmire said he is not sure if his measure will face opposition. Neither UIW nor Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, a nonprofit that represents private universities, returned requests for comment.

The UIW officer, Cpl. Christopher Carter, shot and killed 23-year-old UIW senior Robert Cameron Redus in the parking lot of Redus’ apartment building on Dec. 6, 2013.

Carter was on duty when he saw Redus driving erratically on Broadway and started following him, believing correctly he was drunk.

When Carter tried to handcuff Redus in the parking lot, the two started struggling, according to legal filings and authorities. Carter repeatedly told Redus to stop resisting, but Redus was at one point able to snatch Carter’s baton away from the officer and hit him with it, officials have said.

Carter was able to get the baton back, and Redus broke free, according to officials. When Redus charged again with a fist raised, Carter opened fire, killing Redus, according to the official account.

Carter’s body microphone recorded the encounter, but the audio has not been released by the university or authorities. UIW has said it has been asked by authorities not to release it, and authorities have declined to do so, citing the ongoing investigation.