The Texas Department of Public Safety has asked the state's Office of the Attorney General to prevent the public release of police body camera footage from the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in part because, it argues, the footage could be used by other shooters to determine "weaknesses" in police response to crimes.
The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will now review audio and body camera footage recorded by the department to determine if any of it can be released, according to a letter the department sent Motherboard in response to a public records request we filed asking for "photographs and audio as well as video records" recorded by Department of Public Safety officers.
“Revealing the marked records would provide criminals with invaluable information concerning Department techniques used to investigate and detect activities of suspected criminal elements; how information is assessed and analyzed; how information is shared among partner law enforcement agencies and the lessons learned from the analysis of prior criminal activities,” the department wrote in a letter to the Office of the Attorney General that asked the office to prevent the release of the public records. “Knowing the intelligence and response capabilities of Department personnel and where those employees focus their attention will compromise law enforcement purposes by enabling criminals to anticipate weakness in law enforcement procedures and alter their methods of operation in order to avoid detection and apprehension.”
Soon after the shooting, in which a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, Motherboard filed a public records request with Uvalde police, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, the Department of Homeland Security and DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. In those requests, we sought body camera footage, CCTV footage, audio recordings, and photos from the scene in an attempt to gain more clarity about what law enforcement did at the scene of the shooting. Uvalde police, in particular, have been criticized for not following protocol and allowing the shooter to stay in a classroom without trying to stop him, and for preventing parents from trying to stop the shooter themselves. Authorities said that this was the "wrong decision."
Customs and Border Patrol rejected our request within a day, noting that any body camera footage is part of an active investigation and thus exempt from Freedom of Information requests. Uvalde Police and the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, who were not cooperating with an investigation by DHS, have yet to acknowledge our requests. By law, they have 10 business days to respond; in practice, many government agencies around the country simply ignore freedom of information requests or only respond when badgered or threatened with litigation. Motherboard filed those requests nine business days ago.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, however, responded quickly to our request and acknowledged that “photographs and audio as well as video records” do exist. Last week, the New York Times published details from a transcript of body camera footage.
“The Department has located records responsive to your request; however, we believe the records may be excepted from required public disclosure at this time,” a lawyer for the department said. “We are seeking a ruling from the Office of the Attorney General with respect to disclosure of these records, and a copy of our request letter is enclosed.”
In that letter, the department is seeking guidance on our request as well as about a dozen others. The Department of Public Safety told the state attorney general that it believes the footage should be exempted because it is part of an active investigation. Notably, the police are also claiming that publishing the footage would somehow help other mass shooters and thus should be kept private. The Office of the Texas Attorney General will eventually have to decide if it will release any footage.
Citing an “active investigation” is one of the easiest ways for police to prevent information from being divulged to the public, because federal and state public records laws generally have a carveout that prevents records related to an active investigation from being released. In that sense, immediately requesting body camera footage from a mass shooting using a public records request is often a fool’s errand. As VICE News explained earlier this month, police have also used something known as the “dead suspect loophole” to prevent body camera footage from being released.
However, Motherboard has had success in the past obtaining body camera footage from mass tragedies in Texas in the past. In 2016, the day after a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas during a protest against the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Motherboard requested footage related to the police use of a bomb strapped to a robot to kill the shooter. That request went through a similar process to the one described above, with police sending our request to the Texas Attorney General. In the Dallas Police Department's letter to the Texas Attorney General, it asked that footage be suppressed because it could be "embarrassing." In April of last year, nearly five years after our initial request, the Dallas Police Department released hundreds of gigabytes of photos, body camera footage, and surveillance camera footage of the events of that night.