Texas blog denied public records request in wake of police shootings

Dec 5, 2014

The blogosphere and government agencies have had an interesting relationship since independent websites first popped up some 20 years ago. The internet is a watchdog’s dream space; information spreads like wildfire, and once it’s out, it’s hard to ever get back in the bottle. Such a relationship also exists amongst news outlets, and everything in between. It’s no surprise then, that the San Antonio Current is finding itself in some public records turmoil after a recent request was denied. Of course, some context would probably help to setup why the request was even filed in the first place.

Ever heard of the 1033 military surplus program? In simple terms, it’s a program that allows for surplus military (army, navy, etc.) equipment to go to police departments around the country. These pieces of equipment can then in turn be utilized by the force. The range of equipment and its usage ranges from the mundane to the downright bizarre; armored assault vehicles, automatic weapons, and even tanks are all fair game.

Not surprisingly, the program has sparked up controversy as citizens have begun to question the need for a police department to have such heavy firepower. Known as the militarization of our police forces, many wonder how the surplus program helps to protect the citizens that the police serve. Because police themselves aren’t overseas on the forefront of war campaigns, it seems likely that, should this equipment ever be used, it would be against the very communities these departments exist within.

Fast forward to recent events in Ferguson and its aftermath, and numerous photos of officers facing off with rioting citizens on the street are easy to find. Now, in the wake of the country-wide turmoil that followed such events, even more light is being shined on the 1033 program.

The San Antonio Current wanted to see what equipment, if any, its own local police departments had received from the program, and submitted the appropriate public records requests to do so. Furthermore, its requests probed at some lesser known programs, which combined take in roughly half a billion dollars each year in funding. All of the programs are aimed at addressing threats in “urban” areas, basically meaning that the funding has to do with the policing of our cities.

The state’s attorney general, Greg Abbott, however, decided to step in and veto the request without much of an explanation. This is highly unusual, but the Current is left without any real recourse. The main supporting argument for the request is that the funds for the programs in question must be voted on by the city council, making them a public affair. All issues that pass through the city council are subject to sunshine laws and are generally able to be inspected by the public.

The AG’s motivations are unclear so far, but they don’t help the growing tension between communities and the various law enforcement and legal bodies meant to serve them. The Current may or may not get the information they were looking for from their inquiries. The lingering question is whether or not the AG has a valid reason to block the public records requests.