A dozen officer-involved shootings since September 2015 have not been properly reported to the state attorney general, apparently violating a groundbreaking new Texas law aimed at enhancing transparency in the often-high-profile incidents.
At least 12 Texas law enforcement agencies failed to report 10 instances of an officer fatally shooting a civilian, according to an analysis of reports filed through Jan. 31. In some of those cases, more than one agency was involved in the incident.
Agencies also failed to file timely reports of four instances in which officers were shot, including two deaths.
Under the law that took effect Sept. 1, 2015, law enforcement agencies were required to report officer-involved shootings within 30 days to the attorney general. There are no consequences for agencies that fail to do so, but the legislator who pushed for the original reporting bill now has three pieces of legislation to change that.
“We need to fix the fact that we have a state law on the books that doesn’t carry with it any penalty,” said Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. “That was the compromise that we settled on last session to get the bill done, and now we want to come back and button this up.”
The data collected under the new law should reveal who is involved in police shootings in Texas, when they occur and the basic circumstances of the incidents. If the data set is incomplete, it’s less usable for journalists, researchers and policymakers — and less helpful in determining if any policies need to be changed.
From the beginning of the reporting requirement through Jan. 31, 107 law enforcement agencies have reported shooting 238 civilians — 105 fatally. Agencies also reported 39 officers were shot; six died.
But reports are missing for at least 12 other fatal shootings of civilians, according to a comparison of the data with other publicly available information on shootings.
Three missing reports stemmed from Harris County incidents involving two constable offices and the Harris County sheriff’s office, records show. Reports are also overdue from sheriff’s departments in Ector, Bell, Montgomery, Refugio and Wood counties and police departments in Beaumont, Dallas, El Centro College, Euless and Marlin.
In April, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy in Victoria shot and killed a man who broke into her Victoria home. Refugio County did not file a report on the incident.
Sheriff Raul Gonzales said through a secretary that he believed no report was required since Deputy Tammy Gregory was off-duty.
The attorney general’s office says the new statute requires agencies to report such shootings. The form contains a box to check if officers were “off-duty.”
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Ken Paxton, Kayleigh Lovvorn, said the office sent letters in 2015 to all of Texas’ 2,500 law enforcement agencies informing them of the new law. If the office is notified about a missing report, they “will reach out to the agency to make them aware of the requirements.”
Lawmaker seeks carrots, sticks
But Johnson, the lawmaker, wants more. Through a trio of bills he’s introduced, Johnson would tie compliance with the reporting requirement to grants that law enforcement agencies receive through the governor’s office. From September 2014 to August, the Criminal Justice Division awarded $52 million in law enforcement grants, including $1 million to the Dallas Police Department and Dallas Area Rapid Transit in the aftermath of Micah Xavier Johnson’s ambush of officers guarding a protest last July.
The Dallas Police Department quickly filed required reports describing the deaths of officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Patrick Zamarripa, state records show. In January — six months after the deadly attack — DART’s Police Department reported the death of the fifth officer slain, officer Brent Alan Thompson, and the injuries of three other officers. After this story first posted to the Statesman web site, El Centro College police filed reports on the injuries of two of its officers in the July incident.
Still, none of the agencies representing the dozen officers who fired at sniper Micah Xavier Johnson reported his shooting death. After he was shot, Johnson was killed by a robot armed with an explosive.
State Rep. Eric Johnson said he doesn’t think the omissions by agencies in his district were intentional. He has proposed two approaches: offering grant money to agencies that comply, and withholding money from those that don’t. A third bill that is less likely to pass in a tight budget year would establish a web portal for law enforcement to file reports online, complete with an interactive dashboard, analysis and visual data representations.
“We need to pass some combination of these bills to take away any possible confusion anyone has about what they have to do to comply,” Johnson said. “They have to know that this is a law they must comply with.”
Penalties have limits
The legislator has already won support withhold funding for law violators from Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. In an interview, Lawrence said that law enforcement absolutely should be following the law.
“If there’s a statute that says you should do X, Y and Z, and you fail to do X, Y and Z, there should be some negative reinforcement,” Lawrence said. “We have always argued that more transparency is better. We assume that everything we do is open to the public.”
Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas, had an early interest in the officer-involved shooting data and contacted several agencies in the beginning to inform them of the requirements. She said it’s difficult to tell exactly how much information is missing. But even one missing report is important, she said, adding, “It’s necessary that we know that all reports are submitted on time.”
Even the prospect of penalties doesn’t always compel participation in such reporting efforts.
Last year, researchers deemed incomplete an older database of reports Texas law enforcement agencies also must file: reports on custodial deaths, which include fatal shootings and other deaths of people in jails and law enforcement custody.
Texas State University Professor Howard Williams and his co-researchers found that even with the threat of a Class B misdemeanor charge for nonreporting, about 200 deaths from 2005 to 2015 weren’t reported. And it’s unclear whether that penalty has ever been pursued by a Texas prosecutor.
“On the books, there’s a threat of punishment, but I don’t know of a single instance when it’s been used,” Woog said.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story as posted online by the Austin American-Statesman on Jan. 27 and the Houston Chronicle on Feb. 4 has been updated to correct erroneous information about two missing reports from Harris County Constable Precinct 1.