The City of Fort Worth is suing the state, contesting a July ruling from the attorney general’s office that it must release records related to use of force by the police department.
The ruling found that Fort Worth’s system for keeping records, in some cases, failed to separate personnel information that is not subject to open records requests from other information that should be open.
A requestor seeking use-of-force records “does not specifically seek information from officers’ department personnel files,” the AG ruling said. “Rather, the requestor generally seeks certain information pertaining to use of force incidents. The city may not engraft the confidentiality afforded to [personnel] records to records that exist independently of the internal files.”
The city in 2012 began using a system called IAPro, a software program that logs incidents into a database and compiles reports on complaints, pursuits and other activity.
In a letter to the AG’s office challenging the opinion, the city contends that the way the database stores records makes it unable to provide one set of data without including material that needs to be withheld by law.
“The City wants to make clear that any specific information regarding a use of force incident is held only within the IAPro system,” making many reports unreleasable, the city said in a letter to the AG.
Police investigations that result in discipline of an officer are generally ruled to be public, while complaints that result in no sanction are not. IAPro, used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Texas, logs all complaints and incidents and can generate lists like this.
IAPro management did not respond to calls, texts or emails seeking comment.
The point of contention, according to a review of court documents, is the storage and maintenance of police records; Fort Worth appears to merge its records through the IAPro system, including both sustained complaints and those that resulted in no sanction. The AG rulings have asked that the department keep the two categories separate with regard to public record requests. The use of force records being sought apparently included some incidents in which the use of force resulted in a complaint, but in which the officer was not disciplined.
Although the city has lost court cases in the past seeking to protect police records, its use of the IAPro system has given it a plausible, if debatable, means to protect complaints against the police.
“It sounds like a back-door exemption for things that are not exempt,” said Jim Hemphill, an Austin-based public records lawyer. “They claim they cannot segregate those reports that didn’t result in discipline, but the AG has already ruled that they have to cough them up.”
A Fort Worth Police Department spokesman did not return a call seeking an interview.
Fort Worth has tried over the years to protect the records of its police officers, frequently referring requests to the AG’s office. Like other cities, Fort Worth occasionally sues the state when a ruling requires the city to provide records it seeks to keep private.
The city in 2002 sued then-AG John Cornyn to withhold records regarding a job applicant to the police department. A state appellate court required the records to be released.
The city has been cautioned before regarding its use-of-force record-keeping. An AG ruling in 2006 allowed the city to withhold records connected to incidents in which no disciplinary action was taken but cautioned the city that it cannot merge private personnel information into public records and expect to withhold the public part.
“Do they hold all their personnel records back because of this system?” said Wanda Cash, a former newspaper owner and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “If these records are available at all, they must release them. If other departments use that same system, they don’t seem to be having problems complying.”
Massachusetts State Police, who use the IAPro system, for example, release police records with information redacted where required.
Fort Worth’s argument — that its records are entwined and the otherwise public parts cannot be broken out without violating legal restrictions — is dubious, said Tom Gregor, a Houston-based public records lawyer.
“The skeptic in me says they do it intentionally,’ Gregor said. “The other side is that it is probable that this is the easiest way for them to keep their documents and they really can’t be extracted. And without someone [who knows the system’s internal workings], maybe a whistle blower, it would be hard to pin down.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].