The City of Uvalde and its police department are working with a private law firm to prevent the release of nearly any record related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, according to a letter obtained by Motherboard in response to a series of public information requests we made. The public records Uvalde is trying to suppress include body camera footage, photos, 911 calls, emails, text messages, criminal records, and more.
“The City has not voluntarily released any information to a member of the public,” the city’s lawyer, Cynthia Trevino, who works for the private law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, wrote in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The city wrote the letter asking Paxton for a determination about what information it is required to release to the public, which is standard practice in Texas. Paxton's office will eventually rule which of the city's arguments have merit and will determine which, if any, public records it is required to release.
The letter makes clear, however, that the city and its police department want to be exempted from releasing a wide variety of records in part because it is being sued, in part because some of the records could include “highly embarrassing information,” in part because some of the information is “not of legitimate concern to the public,” in part because the information could reveal “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime,” in part because some of the information may cause or may "regard … emotional/mental distress," and in part because its response to the shooting is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Uvalde County District Attorney.
The letter explains that Uvalde has at least one in-house attorney (whose communications it is trying to prevent from public release), and yet, it is using outside private counsel to deal with a matter of extreme importance and public interest. Uvalde’s city government and its police department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.
The city says that it has received 148 separate public records requests (including several from Motherboard), and has lumped all of them together, making a broad legal argument as to why it should not be required to respond to many of them. Earlier this week, Motherboard reported on a similar letter sent to Paxton by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which wanted to suppress body-camera footage because it could expose “weaknesses” in police response to crimes that criminals could exploit. (The main seeming weakness in the Uvalde response was that police, in violation of standard policy and protocol, refused to risk their lives to protect children.)
For example, the city and its police department argue that it should be exempted from releasing “police officer training guides, policy and procedure manuals, shift change schedules, security details, and blueprints of secured facilities,” because these could be used to decipher “methods, techniques, and strategies for preventing and predicting crime.” The Uvalde Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have been pilloried by the press and the public for standing in the hallway while a gunman killed children—against standard protocol—and for preventing parents from entering the building to save their children. The letter also argues that the department should be exempted from releasing body camera footage simply because it could be “information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision.”
It is impossible to say what records, in particular, the city and the police are referring to in many parts of the letter. For example, it says it cannot release an individual's criminal history because it would be "not of legitimate concern to the public," because it could be "highly embarrassing," and because it would violate their common-law right to privacy. But the letter does not talk about who the records would be about, why they wouldn't be relevant to the public, or why they would be highly embarrassing.
“They claim that the compilation of individuals’ criminal history is highly embarrassing information, which is a strange cover. The embarrassing information is the inept police response,” Christopher Schneider, a professor of sociology at Brandon University who studies police body cameras and the disclosure of footage from them, told Motherboard, noting that suspects' criminal histories are released by the police all the time without anyone having requested them. “They have no problem using information like that against individuals of the public. The information disclosure needs to go both ways, if that’s the case.” Disciplinary or criminal records for members of the police, for example, would be obviously relevant public information in a case in which the police response has been highly criticized. "It’s rather ripe to say any of this is not of legitimate public concern," he added. "The whole country is trying to figure out how to not allow this to happen again."
This is a relatively common sort of argument, but it shows yet again that the deck is stacked against the public disclosure of public records when they are inconvenient or embarrassing to the police.
“The case that’s being made contains some particularly asinine stonewalling,” Schneider said. “It seems like the city is throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, and seeking a ruling to suppress this information from being released.”
Schneider says that lumping together all 148 public records requests, and asking for a legal ruling on everything at once, seems like a tactic to prevent the release of anything and everything.
“It appears that they’re conflating all of the information requests as a justification to not release the stuff we should be seeing. If it’s an officer’s email to his wife, yeah, we don’t need to see this. But the body-worn camera footage is of concern. They’re conflating all of this information together to suppress the legitimate stuff,” he said.
In his research, Schneider said that body-worn cameras often do not do what they’re supposed to do, which is hold police accountable to the public. This is because public records laws are often written in such a way as to provide wide latitude to police to decide what the public actually gets to see, and allows them to “regain control of the narrative” when it is convenient for them.
“It’s not a coincidence journalists run into this problem [of not being able to obtain body camera footage] over and over again,” Schneider said. “The law is by design, the privacy rules are by design to make it absolutely as difficult as possible to release the information.”