20 KXAN investigations that made a difference in 2021

Investigations

(KXAN) — KXAN investigators worked tirelessly during 2021 to answer our viewers’ questions and concerns.

From investigating a growing backlog of people in Texas jails who need mental competency restoration to the state legislature requiring little training for police officers on mental health, here are some top stories from the KXAN Investigates team that made a difference in 2021.

For two years, KXAN investigators explored a growing backlog of people in Texas jails who need mental competency restoration. While an advisory committee has largely focused on finding state hospital beds for that group, our team took a closer look at the backgrounds of individuals on the waitlist to determine trends experts say could help drive down numbers. Our research found data on this topic is often hidden or unreliable – a discovery sparking promise for change from state leaders. The resulting “Mental Competency Consequences” project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Texas’ racial profiling laws are meant to root out policing that targets people of color. The laws have been on the books for 20 years and require law enforcement agencies to gather their traffic stop data annually, comparatively analyze it and submit the details to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement or TCOLE. But a KXAN investigation has uncovered TCOLE failed to mandate and collect that information and opted not to use its enforcement authority hundreds of times in recent years when police agencies failed to report.

Denise Mahoney shows KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant ceiling damage at her Austin apartment complex. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

In the wake of the Miami-area condo collapse that killed nearly 100 people, KXAN reached out to cities across Texas to see how each handles safety inspections at residential properties. We found, in many cases, cities take a reactive approach by putting the responsibility to find problems on the residents.

Texas is now requiring the use of a national database that uses fingerprints, DNA and dental records to solve missing and unidentified persons cases. Ten states passed laws mandating police and medical examiners to enter case details to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUs – but Texas didn’t until this year, even though it’s based in Fort Worth. KXAN followed the progression of the law, speaking with two families backing it.

Nearly half of all cases playing out in Texas civil courts are family law cases, and the ones dealing with child custody can be some of the most complex. But what happens when these disputes cross international borders? Federal records show hundreds of children are taken to a foreign country from the U.S. by a parent every year – often leaving another parent behind. KXAN investigators explore the civil remedy available for left-behind parents, and why a trend over the last decade has the system choosing to let some children stay with the parent who took them.

Sgt. Al Garibay of the Austin Police Department runs toward the scene of Saturday's early morning shooting, with a KXAN photographer behind (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)
Sgt. Al Garibay of the Austin Police Department runs toward the scene of Saturday’s early morning shooting, with a KXAN photographer behind (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)

For decades, downtown Austin’s Sixth Street Entertainment District has served as a live music destination, enjoyed by college students and visitors to the city. But police are grappling with a violent crime increase there, and Austin is looking to other cities for help. Our investigative team traveled across the country to learn how Arlington, Virginia changed the culture of its own entertainment district and reduced crime.

Deaths caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100-times stronger than morphine, were higher than ever in Central Texas last year. The escalation in deaths has been driven, at least in part, by the spread of counterfeit pills laced with the potent drug. And while more and more unsuspecting users die of overdoses, authorities are cracking down on dealers.

For decades, public corruption cases against state officials were investigated and prosecuted in Texas’ capital city. But in 2015, after a dustup at the highest levels of state government, lawmakers instead moved those responsibilities to the Texas Rangers and local prosecutors. An analysis of the cases from the past five years revealed few have been prosecuted and most Ranger investigations focused on lower-level officials. In an investigative collaboration with the Texas Observer and other media outlets, KXAN took a closer look at the Central Texas cases falling short and the legislative history that led to a system critics claim does little to hold your elected leaders accountable.

Containers of the medication used to end an early pregnancy sit on a table inside a Planned Parenthood clinic Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Fairview Heights, Ill. Women with unwanted pregnancies are increasingly considering getting abortion pills by mail. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Containers of the medication used to end an early pregnancy sit on a table inside a Planned Parenthood clinic Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Fairview Heights, Ill. Women with unwanted pregnancies are increasingly considering getting abortion pills by mail. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

After Texas lawmakers passed the country’s most restrictive abortion law, more people began turning to online pharmacies for access to medication abortion. State leaders then passed more legislation attempting to stop pills from being sent through the mail, but the law may do little to halt organizations operating outside the state and the country.

Central Texas homebuyers are sharing their stories after their dream home contracts were canceled. KXAN investigated and found home builders can have a termination clause in their contracts that allows them to cancel for any reason. Brohn Homes said it is extremely rare to terminate a contract. The company explained to KXAN investigators its intent is always to continue to build and close the sale of a home.

FILE – Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines sit ready for use at a Dallas County Health and Human Services drive up vaccine site in Mesquite, Texas, Nov. 30, 2021. While all eyes are on the new and little-understood omicron variant, the delta form of the coronavirus isn’t finished wreaking havoc in the U.S. There is much that is unknown about omicron, including whether it is more contagious than previous versions, makes people sicker or more easily thwarts the vaccine or breaks through the immunity that people get from a bout of COVID-19. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

How did Texas prepare for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines? The KXAN Investigates team took a look.

Locked in Limbo: Moving Forward (KXAN Photo)
Locked in Limbo: Moving Forward (KXAN Photo)

Every year, thousands of mentally ill men and women languish in Texas’ county jails. Incapable of standing trial, they wait in line behind hundreds of other people — sometimes over a year — for a bed in a state hospital to get the help they need. Explore the investigation that launched this project and is now drawing renewed attention to this problem at the State Capitol.

911 operators pick up the phone when people are having the worst days of their lives, but Austin is grappling with a shortage. While the current group of operators still answers emergency calls faster than the national standard, former call takers say they worry people will be left on hold during a major emergency event, like February’s winter storm. We began investigating the issue after an initial tip about the staffing challenges and asked the Austin Police Department how it is trying to attract and keep these vital public safety employees.

Why didn’t Texas power plants winterize after the 2011 storms? A lawmaker proposed a fine to make it happen.

The state will funnel more than a billion federal dollars to nursing homes this fiscal year through the Quality Incentive Payment Program or QIPP. Like its name suggests, nursing homes in the program are paid if they meet or exceed measurable standards of quality care for their vulnerable residents. But a KXAN investigation discovered federal officials paused some reporting requirements for the program, and the money has continued to flow.

Any peace officer in Texas can order a peace officer emergency detention if they believe a person is at risk of harming themselves or others. Since 2017, at least 1,500 minors in Austin have been sent to crisis facilities after police officers ordered them there, but KXAN found the state legislature requires little training for police officers on mental health.

Ron and Jacqueline Howard at their home on the wrong property
Ron and Jacqueline Howard standing in their backyard in front of the porch that Ron Howard was building prior to learning their home was on the wrong property. (KXAN Photo/Dalton Huey)

Jacqueline and Ron Howard’s life changed in 2018 when they were given the opportunity to become property owners. They said for nearly 40 years a close friend owned two neighboring plots of land off a remote gravel road in rural Smithville and had offered to sell them the lots for $500. That chapter came to an abrupt halt nine months into living in their “forever home,” when a man they said they had never met knocked on their door.

Last year, the Justice Department began allowing nonviolent prisoners at low risk of offending to be released on home confinement. The decision was meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in confinement. In January of this year, a DOJ legal memo determined prisoners must return once the pandemic ends.

When someone dies in the custody of Texas law enforcement, state law requires that agency to submit a specific report to the attorney general detailing the incident. The report is meant to promote transparency and accountability, but a KXAN investigation found hundreds of reports in recent years filed incomplete or late, leaving the public and families without answers.

This surveillance video released by the Austin Police Department shows the seconds before Adam Marsh ran over Michele Gonzales in the parking lot of a south Austin gas station on Feb. 9, 2018. APD released the video in a press release 18 days after Gonzales was hit asking for the public's help to identify the driver. Marsh's attorney said his client didn't know he'd hit anyone that night and turned himself in after recognizing his truck in the video. (Austin Police Department Photo)
This surveillance video released by the Austin Police Department shows the seconds before Adam Marsh ran over Michele Gonzales in the parking lot of a south Austin gas station on Feb. 9, 2018. APD released the video in a press release 18 days after Gonzales was hit asking for the public’s help to identify the driver. Marsh’s attorney said his client didn’t know he’d hit anyone that night and turned himself in after recognizing his truck in the video. (Austin Police Department Photo)

In the past six years, hundreds of Texas police officers and jailers facing felony charges have been given the opportunity to avoid prison by surrendering their law enforcement license in plea bargain agreements. KXAN investigations in 2019 and again in 2021 have found this process is widespread and hasn’t slowed, but new legislation at the state Capitol could upend the bargain system and change how the state handles troubled officers.

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