Dallas Morning News: We urge Texas legislative leaders to get moving on protecting the public’s right to know

Dallas Morning News
Editorial
Originally published Oct. 3, 2017

Imagine getting the devastating news that your son died in police custody. Then imagine not being able to find out exactly what happened to him for months because officials won’t release information.

That describes the case of Tony Timpa, who died August 2016, less than an hour after calling 911 from a parking lot of a Dallas porn store. Dallas Morning News investigative writer Cary Aspinwall reports we still don’t have all the answers more than a year later because the Dallas Police Department, citing an ongoing investigation, has denied access to records.

Disturbing.

And another example of government efforts to keep public information private. Police have denied misconduct in this case but have rebuffed requests for information from Timpa’s mother, her lawyer, The News and NBC5.

The public’s right to know is critical to protecting our democracy.

It’s the reason this newspaper has consistently supported increasing transparency to hold officials throughout the state accountable and to keep track of what they’re doing, whether it’s how someone died in custody or how our tax dollars are being spent.

We call on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus to adopt a sense of urgency on naming a joint interim legislative committee to examine the Texas Public Information Act and make recommendations before the 2019 session on how it can be improved.

A lot of people from diverse viewpoints, including leaders with businesses, cities, the Texas Press Association, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and the Attorney General’s office, worked for months to devise improvements leading up to the last legislative session only to see their work ignored by certain committee chairs.

That work would have repaired damaging court rulings that cut off public access to contracts paid for with tax dollars. Hundreds of cities and school districts are denying access to information based on those rulings.

We can’t let this trend continue.

It’s important that legislative leaders get moving on naming the committee by November at the latest, to give it time to organize and begin holding hearings across the state early next year.

In the Timpa case, his mother had to sue to get access to some records in her own son’s death. The Dallas County medical examiner wouldn’t even let her see her son’s autopsy report. Finally, her lawyer got access  to 911 calls and body camera footage that The News can’t see because of a protective order in the ongoing case.

There are discrepancies between the police accounts and what the body camera footage reportedly shows, and that is why the public should be allowed to see the records, her attorney contends.

It shouldn’t take a federal trial to make that happen in this case or any others around this state. Texas was once a leader in the nation on transparency.  We hope it can be again.