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In Texas, a legal loophole may block access to Uvalde shooting records

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Since the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, officials have given out contradictory information. To get the facts, reporters often turn to public information, such as 911 calls, police dispatch recordings and body cameras. But in Texas, those records are tough to obtain. As Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies reports, the state can invoke something called the dead suspect loophole.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: As the director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, Kelley Shannon understands the state's public information law.

KELLEY SHANNON: Thank you so much for coming.

DAVIES: At an open government seminar in San Antonio, people are focused on what's happening 60 miles away in Uvalde.

SHANNON: I think what we're seeing is an overall mood of nontransparency happening in Uvalde.

DAVIES: After the school shooting that left 21 dead, reporters have been trying to get answers. But Shannon says it appears you value officials are working to keep the truth from coming out.

SHANNON: From the intimidation of the reporters that we're seeing there to blocking photographers from being able to take pictures to threatening to have secret meetings, maybe even having secret public meeting, we don't know.

DAVIES: Texas Public Radio and other news organizations filed open records request for public documents related to the May 24 massacre. They were denied, citing numerous Texas Open Records Act exemptions, including one called the dead suspect loophole.

JOE MOODY: The policy consideration is a good one. Maybe you're wrongfully accused of something. You know, this was meant to protect the accused. And now it's been flipped on its head.

DAVIES: That's Texas State Representative Joe Moody, vice chair of the state House committee investigating the Uvalde shooting. For years, he's worked to close the dead suspect loophole. He says law enforcement has taken advantage of it to hide information when a suspect dies in police custody. That's what happened to Graham Dyer.

ROBERT DYER: My wife and I got the most dreaded phone call any parent can ever receive. Our son had been arrested by the Mesquite Police Department. Graham was very gravely injured.

DAVIES: Robert Dyer testified in 2019 to the Texas legislature about the night his son died in police custody. Graham had taken LSD and was having a bad reaction. He was picked up and charged with assaulting an officer. Then Mesquite PD refused to release the documents and videos to the Dyer family that would show what led to his death.

DYER: If somebody dies in police custody, I should think this is when we'd want to open all of our records.

DAVIES: That's not how the Texas police union sees it. The group objected to Moody's bill, and Governor Greg Abbott threatened to veto it. It never passed. The Dyer family eventually did get the information through a federal Freedom of Information request. That took over two years. This could offer a clue about what to expect with information from Uvalde. But Moody says his committee will be releasing a report about what went wrong at Robb Elementary.

MOODY: That's the job of this committee - is to lay bare the facts, and that's what we intend to do.

DAVIES: Still, despite promises of openness, the committee is essentially operating in secret and not releasing who the witnesses are, their testimony and even the specific goals of the investigation. Kelley Shannon says because of the lack of trust, the public deserves unfiltered information.

SHANNON: Transparency and openness is the key to healing and moving on, if it's even possible from something like this.

DAVIES: And she promises reporters are not going to give up until the whole truth comes out about the police response that day in Uvalde. She says the 19 children and two teachers who died deserve that. For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF AYYALDO, HANN. AND KANIMAYO'S "SUMMER BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.