After outrage over the lack of transparency surrounding the mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., last year, the Texas legislature approved a bill Monday to close a notorious loophole in the state's public record law that allows police to hide records of deaths in custody. The bill now goes to Gov. Gregg Abbott's desk. It would clarify that an exception that allows police to withhold records in cases where the suspect of an investigation was never convicted of a crime does not apply to deceased individuals, Reason reports. Texas enacted the statute in 1997 to protect the privacy of innocent suspects. Still, police departments quickly figured out they could also use it to withhold information on deaths in police custody, because a dead suspect will never be convicted. Previous bills to close the "dead suspect loophole" failed because of intense opposition from police unions.
Outrage over the botched police response to the Uvalde mass shooting and the subsequent refusal to release public records about the shooting pushed the most recent version of the law over the finish line. Texas state Rep. Joe Moody, who has introduced the bill for the past several years, tweeted, "Uvalde elevated the issue." In practice, the loophole prevented loved ones from accessing information about how family members died and protected police from scrutiny from lawyers and reporters. A 2018 Reason investigation found at least 81 instances where police departments cited the statute to withhold records of deaths in police custody from reporters, lawyers, and family members of the deceased. Reason's previous investigation found that the loophole was cited 3,046 times in 2017 by local and state agencies trying to withhold public records, compared to 823 in 2003. A new analysis of public record rulings issued by the Texas Attorney General's office shows the statute was cited 5,085 times in 2022.