By Brian Chasnoff
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Jan. 18, 2016
Last month, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau seemed to acknowledge the role the media can play in cases of potential officer misconduct.
Previously, her office had refused to release to the media even a basic incident report of a fatal deputy-involved shooting. That day, after a grand jury declined to indict two deputies in the shooting of Gilbert Flores, Pamerleau told a roomful of reporters that “times have changed … and going forward, we may make different decisions on information, on whether it’s releasable or not.”
The times, apparently, haven’t changed enough.
Less than three weeks later, a Bexar County detention officer was accused of sexually assaulted a female inmate in a Sheriff’s Office van in the Bexar County Jail parking lot, according to an arrest affidavit. Once again, the Sheriff’s Office is refusing to release a basic offense report that could shed light on a particularly troubling aspect of the case.
The officer, Erick Montez, was arrested on felony charges of sexual assault and violating the civil rights of a person in custody. The inmate alleged that Montez, while transporting her in the van “during midnight hours,” sexually assaulted her in the “back seat area,” according to the affidavit.
Surveillance video supports the allegation, and Montez later admitted to having sex in the van while on duty and in full uniform, according to the affidavit.
The document states the inmate made the outcry on Jan. 2. The assault, however, allegedly occurred nearly a week earlier, on Dec. 27.
Rumors have since surfaced that the inmate made an immediate outcry on the date of the offense, yet for unknown reasons nearly a week passed before authorities began investigating the allegations.
“There have been some rumors that she may have made an outcry when it happened, but as of right now there’s no evidence of that,” said James Keith, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
“She made an outcry on Jan. 2,” Keith added. “Right now, that’s the only known documented outcry. What we have to investigate is, did she tell a deputy (earlier)?”
What does the offense report state on the matter?
I can’t report that. I requested the document last week, but the sheriff’s office won’t release it, citing an “open investigation.”
Basic details in an offense report are normally open to the public under state law. Past court decisions have held that such information must be released to the public, even during an active criminal investigation.
“You should be entitled to the offense report in this case,” said Houston lawyer Joe Larsen, an open records advocate and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“There’s no reason not to provide that to you, with the sole possibility that the name of the alleged victim could be redacted, and any identifying information,” Larsen continued. “Otherwise, there’s no good basis at all for withholding that.”
Pamerleau told me she won’t release the report because it could “jeopardize the investigation.”
Asked on what date the alleged victim made her first outcry, Pamerleau said, “I don’t have those dates in front of me. I know there was some conversation about there being an earlier outcry, and I wasn’t aware of that.”
Asked whether that issue is part of the investigation, she said, “It may be.”
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood also refused to release the offense report.
“Whether she made the outcry on the 27th or the 7th, if the facts are true, this guy is going to be held accountable,” LaHood said.
The question, though, is whether others should also be held accountable — for trying to cover up an officer-involved sexual assault, delaying an investigation and compromising evidence in the process.
Public information should be made available according to law, especially when a government agency is investigating itself.
The “times” haven’t changed that.
What needs to change is the county’s policy on releasing public information.