Texas Legislature votes for transparency in private university police departments

TEXAS — The Texas House of Representatives gave unanimous support to a bill on Tuesday that would require private university police departments to release certain records to the public, sending the proposal to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The bill would amend the state’s education code to specify that private universities’ police departments are “a law enforcement agency and a governmental body” with respect to information about law enforcement activities.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Democrat, said he introduced the bill after Rice University denied his request for information about an incident in 2013 where a surveillance video showed two Rice University police officers beating a suspected bicycle thief with batons.

“The media nor anyone could get their incident report because they claimed that they were a private school, so we just set out to fix that problem,” Whitmire said.

A Rice University spokesman declined to comment on the legislation.

The Texas Public Information Act does not require private universities to release documents to the public, which currently includes police reports and other law enforcement records. State law authorizes private universities to hire their own police force, which then receive the same authority as other law enforcement agencies in the state.

The Texas Senate voted unanimously in favor of the bill in March. As the bill progressed through the Legislature, Whitmire said it didn’t receive as much pushback as he had expected, calling opposition from private universities “mild.”

“Quite frankly, all we’re asking for is public information for how they handle their police,” Whitmire said. “If they’re going to have a police department, they ought to be transparent.”

Lawmakers in Illinois are considering similar legislation this year, which comes during a time of heightened scrutiny of the University of Chicago Police Department over perceived racial profiling. Currently, only three states — Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — have laws requiring private university police departments to divulge some records.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.