Originally published December 3
On a list of Texas higher education stereotypes, the entry for Rice University begins: “I live in the fourth biggest city in the country, yet I can go weeks without leaving campus.” That inside-the-hedges mentality is fine for studious undergrads, but not the campus police department. With the Rice University Police Department (RUPD) refusing to open the books on a recent police beating, those green hedges are starting to look like an iron curtain (“Lack of police transparency in Rice arrest vexes lawmaker,” Page A1, Tuesday).
Last week, KPRC-TV news ran a story about three RUPD officers beating a suspected bicycle thief while he lay on the ground begging for them to stop – all documented on camera. The video shocks with each baton strike – 13 of them in 20 seconds – and raises memories of Rodney King. But the most distressing part of the story is what we don’t know. Rice University has refused to comply with requests under the Texas Public Information Act to release the entire video or the mugshot from the arrest, claiming that the information is private.
Rice University may be private – the police aren’t. RUPD isn’t just a bunch of campus security guards, but a recognized police force overseen by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, the state regulatory agency for all peace officers. Therefore, the state gives Rice cops the authority to use force and allows them to arrest – and even shoot – people on and off campus.
There is little difference between RUPD and any other police force, but Rice’s lawyers insist they should be treated differently. Police are police, even if they’re Owls, and the armed muscle of government authority should be open to public scrutiny.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what state law says. Texas allows private universities to have campus police departments with full police powers, but it doesn’t mandate full police accountability. Unlike the Houston Police Department or the University of Houston Police Department, the Texas Public Information Act does not necessarily cover Rice’s campus police. But it doesn’t take a Rice University philosophy professor to know that there is a difference between what one can do and what one should do. Police in a democratic society must be open to investigation, even if they work at a private university. And with Rice’s secretive police making headlines, the university may soon learn just how private it actually is.
A furious state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has taken up the cause of shining light on RUPD, and he’s threatening to tighten the many public spigots that help fund Rice’s high-output research programs.
“If they think they don’t take taxpayer money: One, watch what I do to their budget,” Sen. Whitmire told the Chronicle. “And two, watch what I do to their police department.”
Rice University does receive millions in state funding, including $7.4 million from the scandal-plagued Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in 2012, and students are eligible for state-funded financial aid programs. It shouldn’t come to pulling the purse strings to make RUPD open its records. However, this scandal should at least be the catalyst for our elected officials in Austin to close the loophole in the Texas Public Information Act that allows police departments to hide behind a private endowment.
Back here in Houston, Rice University President David Leebron needs to reassure the public that RUPD is not above the law. The university should immediately release the full video of the arrest and any related information. It also should explain what actions have been taken against the officers in question and release results of any investigation.
But the problems don’t stop at the hedges. There should be zero tolerance for what we can see on that police video, but we only know about it because there was a police camera. Dashboard and body cameras are a growing part of police best practices and HPD is far behind the curve. How many beatings like this one go undetected for lack of a watchful camera eye? Houston Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton has documented hundreds of incidents where police have shot, and even killed, unarmed suspects, and not one officer has been prosecuted. Would those numbers be different – and justice be done – if a grand jury had video evidence?
Police are supposed to guard the citizenry from undue harm and let the courts handle punishments. After learning about police beatings and shootings, it is time for Houstonians to ask the question: (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) Who will police the police themselves?