News organizations sue Texas Department of Public Safety over withheld Uvalde shooting records

News organizations sue Texas Department of Public Safety over withheld Uvalde shooting records
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on February 1, 2017, Wikimedia Commons
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More than a dozen news organizations filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday, accusing the agency of unlawfully withholding public records related to the May school shooting in Uvalde.

The organizations, which include ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, have each filed requests for information detailing the response to the massacre by various authorities under the Texas Public Information Act. ProPublica and the Tribune filed about 70 records requests with multiple agencies.

DPS has refused to release records sought in the requests, even as the agency has selectively disclosed some information through public testimony, third-party analyses and news conferences.

“In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and continuing throughout the ensuing two months, DPS has declined to provide any meaningful information in response to the Requests regarding the events of that day — despite the awful reality that some 376 members of law enforcement responded to the tragedy, and hundreds of those were in the school or on school property not going into the unlocked classroom where the gunman continued killing helpless youth,” the lawsuit states.

A comprehensive report released in July by a Texas House of Representatives committee found that numerous law enforcement agencies, including the state police, failed to quickly confront the gunman, who killed 19 students and two teachers over the course of about 77 minutes. DPS has provided little information about the actions of its 91 officers who responded to the scene.

Under Texas law, records are presumed public unless a government body cites a specific exemption that allows information to be withheld under the state’s public information act.

DPS has said that releasing records could interfere with an ongoing investigation. The news organizations argue that there is no such investigation, given that the guilt of the gunman is not in dispute and authorities say the 18-year-old acted alone. The local prosecutor, Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee, has acknowledged that she is not conducting a criminal investigation.

The records requested by the news organizations include emails, body camera and other video footage, call logs, 911 and other emergency communications, interview notes, forensic and ballistic records, and lists of DPS personnel who responded to the shooting.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety has offered inconsistent accounts of how law enforcement responded to the Uvalde tragedy, and its lack of transparency has stirred suspicion and frustration in a community that is still struggling with grief and shock,” said Laura Lee Prather, a First Amendment lawyer at Haynes Boone who represents the news organizations. “DPS has refused numerous requests by these news organizations even though it’s clear under Texas law that the public is entitled to have access to these important public records. We ask that the court grant our petition so that the people of Texas can understand the truth about what happened.”

In addition to ProPublica and the Tribune, the plaintiffs include The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Scripps Media and Gannett.

The suit was brought in state district court in Travis County.

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