Legislators hear testimony on closing police loophole in Texas Public Information Act

AUSTIN _ The parents of teens and young adults who died in police custody urged the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday to close a loophole in the Public Information Act so they can access records about their loved ones’ deaths.

“Government transparency is government transparency, even when it’s not pretty,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody, D-El Paso, as he explained the need for his House Bill 147. “It’s better for people to know the truth, even if it’s ugly and complicated and challenging.”

The legislation would prevent law enforcement agencies from withholding records in cases that did not end in a conviction or deferred adjudication. That exemption in the Texas Public Information came about in the late 1990s and was meant to protect innocent people who are released by the police and not convicted. However, some police agencies now use it to withhold records when a suspect has died in custody, and, thus, will not ever be convicted or finally adjudicated.

Among the witnesses supporting the bill were Kathy and Robert Dyer, parents of Graham Dyer, an 18-year-old who died after he was arrested by Mesquite police officers. They told of the injuries their son sustained in police custody and how afterward they could never obtain the records they requested from the local police force because of the loophole in state law. Instead, they found a way to get videos and other records through a federal Freedom of Information Act request of the FBI and learn about his fatal injuries.

“If someone dies in police custody, I would think this is when we want to open all our police records,” Robert Dyer said. His wife, Kathy, also described the ordeal and the questions the family has wanted answered: “We’re parents. Don’t we have a right to know what happened to our son?”

Demeisha Burns, whose son Herman Titus, 21, died in Travis County Jail custody, said her son wasn’t given the medical care he needed and that she could not obtain the jail records she requested to find out what happened because of the gap in the open records law.

“People deserve to know,” she said. “Families want to be in the loop. … Just so we can go to bed at night and not cry our eyes out.

Several police officers testified that they oppose the bill as it’s currently written but that they are working with Moody on some changes to the legislation that they would support.