Judge says DPS must release documents related to Uvalde shooting response

ByWilliam Melhado, The Texas Tribune
Friday, June 30, 2023
DPS must release records related to Uvalde shooting response
Texas DPS had been withholding nearly all of its records on law enforcement's botched response to Texas' deadliest school shooting. DPS will have an opportunity to redact the files before they're released.

UVALDE, Texas -- A state district judge on Thursday ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin the process of releasing public records related to law enforcement's response to the Uvalde school shooting, granting a request by The Texas Tribune and other news organizations.

Over a dozen news organizations, including ABC13, sued DPS last year, accusing it of unlawfully withholding the records related to the May shooting at Robb Elementary School.

The records concern the botched police response, during which officers waited over an hour to confront the shooter who killed 19 children and two teachers. Nearly 400 officers had descended on the school by the time the shooting was over.

The 261st Civil District Court Judge Daniella DeSeta Lyttle granted a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the Tribune, its partner ProPublica and other local, state and national newsrooms. The records will not be immediately available.

"The public deserves a full accounting of what happened that day and we're glad that the judge has begun that process," said Reid Pillifant, an associate attorney with Haynes Boone who represents the plaintiffs. "We're hopeful DPS won't fight this decision and we'll begin the process of providing transparency."

Lyttle ordered DPS to produce by Aug. 31 a proposed log of redactions it wants to make to the public records. In the court order, Lyttle said that the court anticipated having a hearing to address the proposed redactions in September. DPS could choose to appeal the judgement before then. Lyttle ordered both parties to submit proposals for final judgement by July 14.

The organizations have each filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for information detailing the response by various authorities, including law enforcement, to the massacre. The records 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. DPS did not immediately return a request for comment on Thursday evening.

Almost a year ago, a Texas House of Representatives committee released a comprehensive report that found that the state police, and other responding law enforcement agencies, failed to aggressively confront the shooter.

According to state law, records are presumed public unless a government body cites a specific exemption under the Texas Public Information Act that allows information to be withheld. DPS claimed that the records can be withheld because they are related to an ongoing investigation. The news organizations argued that there is no such investigation because the shooter's guilt is not in question and the 18-year-old acted alone.

DPS has refused to release records, even as the agency has selectively disclosed some information through public testimony, third-party analyses and news conferences.

"As officials continue to shield nearly all information related to the Uvalde tragedy, on the basis of an investigation that has already concluded and a purported prosecution that has yet to materialize, we are thrilled by the Court's ruling that recognizes the public's right to know what happened that day," said Laura Lee Prather, a First Amendment lawyer also with Haynes Boone who represents the news organizations, in a statement to the Tribune. "Judge [DeSeta] Lyttle's ruling brings the Uvalde community and all Texas citizens one step closer to gaining a complete understanding of what happened that day and moving toward closure."

The other plaintiffs include The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Scripps Media and Gannett.

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