AUSTIN (KXAN) – State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said he will be co-chairing the criminal justice reform caucus in the House, a bipartisan group formally created Wednesday, with counterpart chairman State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. The group will help focus efforts, like passing police transparency laws, in a truncated legislative session packed with priorities, Moody said.
The caucus was “born out of a lot of frustration at the end of last session,” he added.
State representatives Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and James White, R-Hillister, are vice-chairs on the caucus. Moody discussed the caucus and transparency reform efforts during a live panel discussion on increasing law enforcement transparency hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“The Public Information Act should be driven by the public. Our default setting is we want more information,” Moody said. “The default setting for the government shouldn’t be to restrict our access to that information.”
The panelists discussed transparency issues that will, or should, be addressed in the current legislative session. Those reforms include better public access to police body camera footage, stronger enforcement of custodial death reporting laws and another effort by Moody to reform the so-called dead-suspect loophole.
That loophole has allowed law enforcement agencies to keep records secret in cases where a suspect died in custody. Agencies are not required to release records in cases that have not resulted in a conviction or deferred adjudication. Since the case of a person who died in custody will never be completed, those records, including video of the incident, can be suppressed.
Moody and others trying to revise the loophole ran into a headwind last legislative session, when law enforcement unions, namely Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas–one of the state’s largest and most powerful, opposed the legislation.
“I’m very disappointed that when we were trying to get to the bottom of something that was important, in terms of transparency efforts, that we were met with that type of dishonesty,” Moody said. “We addressed every single one of their concerns, and they turned and told us all that we hated cops and wanted to see more dead cops. That’s essentially what they turned to.”
Body worn camera problems
Kathy Mitchell, a policy analyst with 501c(4) nonprofit criminal justice reform group Just Liberty, said lawmakers must address the lack of access to police body camera video.
“Body camera video is largely not transparent,” Mitchell said. “The body camera law does not prohibit disclosure, but it allows agencies to not disclose.”
Too often, police departments release body camera footage that casts their actions in a positive light while keeping hidden any video that shows bad behavior, Mitchell said.
“In a majority of cases, there is not body camera released, and that raises the question: What happened?” Mitchell said.
Eva Ruth Moravec, executive director of Texas Justice Initiative, said it would be “intuitive” that people would be able to get body camera video, since we have a law that allows for that.
“It would be surprising for a lot of people to actually understand what this law states and how lenient it can be. If this footage shows anything the department doesn’t want to get out, they can very much make that happen,” Moravec said.
TJI compiles and presents a variety of criminal justice data for the public on its website. A big chunk of the data comes from the Office of Attorney General’s custodial death report database.
Moravec said she supports more effective rules and enforcement of Texas’ custodial death reporting law. Law enforcement agencies, jails and prisons are required to file custodial death reports within 30 days of a death, but that doesn’t always happen. KXAN reported on hundreds of failures to comply with the law and a total lack of enforcement.
“I think there is some interest this year in changing that law to add some teeth so that we can actually compel these agencies when they fail to do so,” Moravec said.
Moody said these criminal justice reform efforts will only be tougher with a shortened legislative session due to the ongoing pandemic. What’s more, the massive winter storm that knocked out power and water to millions of Texas has piled another major agenda item into the mix: addressing shortfalls in Texas’ electric grid.
Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to address the state’s energy grid failure and reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, commonly called ERCOT, the grid’s manager.
“We are already behind. We were going to be behind, with the pandemic situation everything is now slower,” Moody said. “Now, we have an added layer of complexity to the session because an entire new issue that wasn’t on the table is going to absorb — and deservedly so — a significant amount of time.”