KXAN, Victoria Advocate receive Spirit of FOI Awards for open government work

 

AUSTIN _ Two Texas news organizations have won the Spirit of FOI Award for investigations into law enforcement actions based on documents obtained using the Texas Public Information Act.

The Nancy Monson Spirit of FOI Award, presented Thursday by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas at its state conference, was awarded to the Victoria Advocate in the Class A market category for an in-depth look at questionable hiring in the local sheriff’s office.

NBC affiliate KXAN in Austin won in the Class AA large market category for “Racial Profiling Whitewash,” an investigation exposing how the Texas Department of Public Safety and Austin Police Department wrongly recorded the race of minority motorists during traffic stops, skewing the accuracy of racial profiling data.

The Dallas Morning News received an honorable mention for a yearlong investigation that tested the open government practices of more than 100 cities, counties and school districts.

The Nancy Monson Spirit of FOI Award recognizes journalists and news organizations for outstanding efforts upholding First Amendment principles and promoting freedom of information and public access to government. It is named for the FOI Foundation’s former executive director.

KXAN analyzed traffic stop data from the past five years and found that large numbers of minorities, mostly Hispanic, were reported as white. That violated the Texas racial profiling law, which requires officers to determine and document the race of every driver they ticket or arrest. The investigation prompted action by state lawmakers and triggered audits and policy changes within both the Texas DPS and Austin Police Department.

Victoria Advocate reporters began asking questions about hiring practices after several deputies were investigated internally for unruly behavior. The journalists refused to allow repeated information request denials stand in their way of exposing poor vetting of deputies. Two officers’ cases were turned over to the district attorney and went before a grand jury. Both officers were indicted. The sheriff eventually employed a consultant to help implement better practices at the sheriff’s office, including stronger background checks.