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Coalition of news organizations sues Texas Department of Public Safety over withheld records on Uvalde shooting

The lawsuit alleges that the state police have unlawfully withheld records, including body camera footage and emergency communications, during the Robb Elementary shooting.

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills
Victor Escalon, Regional Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety South, speaks to the press during a news conference outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022. Escalon says the 18-year-old gunman who slaughtered 21 people at an elementary school entered the building “unobstructed” through a door that was apparently unlocked.

Editor’s note: Houston Public Media is not a party to this lawsuit. Houston Public Media has signed onto a letter with other news organizations, urging state lawmakers to release information and records related to the Uvalde investigation.

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 The Texas Tribune and its partner ProPublica and other local, state and national newsrooms — have each filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for information detailing the response by various authorities, including law enforcement, to the massacre.

DPS has refused to release records in response to these 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. "At the same time, DPS has offered conflicting accounts regarding the response of law enforcement, the conduct of its officers, the results of its own investigation, and the agency's justifications for withholding information from the public."

A comprehensive report released in July by a Texas House of Representatives committee found numerous law enforcement agencies, including the state police, failed to aggressively 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 state law, records are presumed public unless a government body cites a specific exemption under the Public Information Act that allows information to be withheld.

DPS is claiming an exemption for records related to an ongoing investigation, but the news organizations argue there is no such investigation, given 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 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 tragedy, among other information.

"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 plaintiffs. "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."

The other plaintiffs include The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Scripps Media and Gannett. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, who also joined the suit, have filed about 70 records requests.

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

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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