Texas bill would require private college police departments to make records publicly available

TEXAS — When a surveillance video of two Rice University campus police officers beating a bicycle thief with batons surfaced in August 2013, questions about their use of force prompted public records requests from both the media and a Texas legislator.

After the university declined to release any documents about the incident, arguing that as a private institution its records were exempt from public disclosure, Sen. John Whitmire responded with legislation.

Whitmire, a Democrat whose office had requested the documents, proposed a bill on Jan. 15 to amend the Texas Education Code to require police departments at private colleges to follow the state’s public records law just like other law enforcement agencies. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, which has not yet set a date for a public hearing.

Under the Texas Public Information Act, private universities — including their police departments — are not required to release documents to the public. Police departments at private colleges, however, are licensed by the state of Texas and have the same authority as any other law enforcement body.

“Any police department that has its authority from the state of Texas and acts as peace

officers should be responsive to the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect,” Whitmire said.

The bill would clarify that a private college’s police department is a “governmental body with respect to information relating to law enforcement activities,” eliminating its ability to withhold some law enforcement records from the public.

Rice University spokesman B.J. Almond declined to comment on the legislation.

So far, numerous Texas media outlets have shown support for the legislation, Whitmire said, and he expects the state’s conservative Senate to follow suit.

The Texas legislation reflects a nationwide conversation about campus police transparency at private colleges. In January, ESPN sued the University of Notre Dame for law enforcement records pertaining to its student athletes.

The university has declined to release law enforcement records to the network, despite an advisory opinion from the state’s public access counselor saying that Notre Dame should release the documents. Notre Dame has continued to argue that as a private university, it is not subject to Indiana’s public records law.

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.