AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County will ask the Attorney General’s office whether it can withhold communication about a police transparency bill that the county registered in opposition to in 2019.
In response to a KXAN public information request regarding county communication about House Bill 147, which aimed to close the so-called dead suspect loophole, a county attorney said he will request guidance from the Attorney General as to whether the information has to be released under public records law.
The dead suspect loophole is an exemption in Texas public records law that allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information about a suspect if that suspect died in police custody. It was the subject of a KXAN investigative series in 2019.
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A witness list from the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House of Representatives shows Julie Wheeler, on behalf of the Travis County Commissioners Court, registered against the police transparency bill. No other county registered for or against the bill. The measure eventually made it through the House as an amendment to another bill but was later stripped before final passage.
The hearing took place a month before the death of Javier Ambler who, after a 22-minute pursuit, died in the custody of Williamson County Sheriff’s Office deputies in Austin. Details about Ambler’s death remained secret for 15 months until the Austin Police Department released body camera footage from the incident as part of its investigation into the deadly use of force by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.
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Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, now a Democratic candidate in the Senate District 14 special election, led the Travis County Commissioners Court at the time House Bill 147 was being considered but is unsure who within the Travis County government flagged the bill for opposition.
Eckhardt said elected officials in Travis County have the ability to flag or monitor bills during the legislative session. There should be evidence of who opposed the bill, she said, but she was unaware whether the bill was ever presented to the Travis County Commissioners Court.
“I will tell you, honestly, I don’t know firsthand how or even whether Travis County did drop a card in opposition,” Eckhardt said.
During a Democratic candidate forum last week, Eckhardt was asked by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), who is also running in the Senate District 14 special election, why Travis County was the only county to oppose House Bill 147.
“Why my county, Travis County, was the only county in the state of Texas to be opposed to this bill baffles me, I still do not understand it,” Rodriguez said in an interview with KXAN.
Eckhardt said it is reasonable from someone, like the Travis County attorney or district attorney, to want some exemptions to the public records law to be in place.
“Yeah, we should definitely make that information available to the family unless we’re still under investigation and there’s someone else’s privacy right or some on-going criminal investigation that would be implicated,” Eckhardt said.
State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), who authored House Bill 147, said the bill didn’t have any impact on active investigations. Instead, the bill would have removed the government as the gatekeeper of public information after a case concluded.
Moody said the closure of the dead suspect loophole would prevent stories, like the death of Javier Ambler, from being forgotten.
“If this exemption, this loophole, wasn’t being exploited, this bill wouldn’t need to be here,” Moody said. “People would be doing the right thing, but they’re not.”
The Senate District 14 special election is being held on Tuesday, July 14 to replace retired state Sen. Kirk Watson. Eckhardt and Rodriguez are running as Democrats, while the field also includes Republicans Don Zimmerman and Waller Thomas Burns II, Libertarian Pat Dixon, and Dr. Jeff Ridgway, who is running as an independent candidate.