Texas Attorney General’s Sites for Death and Shooting Reports Go Dark
For six weeks this spring, the Texas Office of the Attorney General’s websites that house reports on officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody were malfunctioning, cutting off access to records that detail important (and often lethal) interactions between civilians and law enforcement.
Every week, law enforcement agencies file dozens of reports with the Attorney General’s office that provide a glimpse into incidents like an officer’s use of deadly force, an incarcerated individual’s death, and shootings in which an officer is shot or shoots a civilian, resulting in an injury or a death. The office then posts these reports online – except that hasn't happened since severe winter weather hit the state and all updates ceased.
On Feb. 15, I noticed that both repositories were empty. After a couple of weeks, some reports appeared, and by the end of March, both collections appeared to be fully restored.
State laws require agencies to file these reports with the Texas Attorney General within 30 days of an incident in which an officer is shot or shoots someone, or when someone dies in their custody. The office then posts these reports online – a move stipulated by statute for the officer-involved shooting reports.
Said another way: By not publishing the reports on officer-involved shootings, the OAG was in violation of state law.
Back when the sites went down, I sent an email informing the office as such, as I have done in the past. On Feb. 22, I heard back:
Hi Ms. Moravec,
The OAG was closed all last week due to the weather and the electrical outages. I have reported the situation to IT this morning and they let me know they are working on it.
As soon as I hear back from them, I will let you know. Thank you for reporting this to us.
IT then followed up that “Salesforce recently rolled out another update,” which caused the outage. About a week later, many of the cases had been restored, but hundreds from this year and last year remain missing, which I again reported to the Attorney General’s office.
This outage means that when someone dies in law enforcement custody – such as Marvin Scott III, 26, who died in the Collin County Jail in March, the custodial death report that officials must file related to the death isn't visible online. That being said, reports (once they are filed) and data are still obtainable through open records requests. On March 22, we submitted an open records request to the Attorney General's office for the custodial death report for Marvin Scott III – not even knowing if it had indeed been filed. We received the report the next day and posted it publicly here.
While the sites were down, TJI continued to obtain data on these incidents from the Attorney General’s office through our standard monthly open records requests. During the outages, the data on our site was kept up-to-date to reflect all filed reports, although the actual reports were unavailable.
This lag in transparency took place during a tenuous time in Texas, with the novel coronavirus still a threat, particularly to those who are incarcerated, and amid winter storms that knocked out power for millions of Texans and claimed the lives of at least 57 people. It remains unclear exactly how the storm affected the health of those behind bars, but we promise to keep apprised of this situation and always share what we find.