Texas attorney general denies public access to El Paso mass shooting records
EL PASO, Texas -- If Texas residents want to know more details about the El Paso mass shooting that left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded or injured four months ago, the state attorney general says tough luck.
While Texas law gives officials the discretion to release as much information as possible about crimes, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says only “basic” information must be released to the public about the mass shooting that happened at the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3 in El Paso.
A leading government transparency lawyer and advocate says based on the law, and without knowing all the specific documents requested, it appears the attorney general complied with the law on the release of documents, but also noting a continuing decline and usefulness in the Texas Public Information Act.
As part of an ongoing ABC-7 investigation, the station filed a number of public records requests with the El Paso Police Department under the Texas Public Information Act on behalf of our viewers. Those requested records included dispatch & radio logs, 911 phone records, police reports, body-camera video and dash-camera video.
In a recent letter to the City of El Paso, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said: “Based upon your representation and our review, we find release of the information at issue would interfere with the detection, investigation, prosecution of crime.” The letter went on to say the law does not exempt basic information.
Texas law says basic information includes information about an arrested person, an arrest or a crime.
Following the shooting, the city released what it said was the “basic” police report, with redaction, meaning parts were blacked out so the public could not read them. The police also provided the signed complaint and arrest record for Patrick Crusius.
The incident report included a brief narrative of what police say happened that day, the location and time of the incident, names of the victims, and charges against the accused shooter Patrick Crusius. The complaint contained more details about the arrest of Crusius, where and how it happened, and what police say his motivation was.
Details of the police department’s emergency response, however, are still unclear.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said it is investigating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism and that it might be a possible hate crime. El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said authorities were examining what he called a “manifesto” they believe was written by Crusius and shows a possible “nexus” to a hate crime.
In early October, El Paso City Attorney Karla Nieman said the department believes it is trying to protect, what she called, “the integrity of the investigation.”
Crusius, 21, of Allen, Texas, has been indicted on a capital murder charge of multiple persons in the death of the 22 people, who ranged in age from 15 to 90. He was arraigned on October 10. He pleaded not guilty. He is currently being held in the El Paso County Detention Facility downtown.
In a phone interview with ABC-7, Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said even though it appears the attorney general complied with the law—the office has become, over many years, a captured bureaucracy.
“It’s hard to get good stuff through the legislature now, and I think it’s because the business lobby is ascendant at this point—not the transparency lobby,” said Larsen. “Then on-top of that, over many years, the Attorney General’s Office appears to become a sort of captured bureaucracy—where they don’t really challenge governmental bodies; they basically accept what governmental bodies are telling them and there are some structural issues as to why they have to do that because they can’t determine issues of fact. But they do appear to really role over for governmental bodies, fairly frequently,” Larsen said.
Larsen said as of right now—the Texas Attorney General’s Office gets 29,000 requests for letter rulings each year. In his opinion, he says government agencies take advantage of the procedural delay by going through the Attorney General’s Office for exemptions—getting rulings back with a rubber stamp.
As previously reported by ABC-7, the Texas Department of Public Safety sent ABC-7 five pages of a 28-page report, which was heavily redacted. It did include some limited details already reported, including the names of the officers involved, and the charges against Crusius—details that would also be available to the general public through the court system.
ABC-7 asked Larsen if a trial has ever been overturned in Texas by pretrial publicity. He said to his knowledge, no, but noted that would fall under constitutional law, not the Public Information Act.
“There’s nothing you’re going to learn here that’s not going to be introduced into trial,” Larsen said. “The jury is going to hear the same thing at trial as the public would hear now. The so-called gag orders, where the trial participants are, the judge forbids them from giving interviews with the public and that sort of thing. That’s gone way too far and all the courts do basically say there’s a lot of coverage about this. They don’t give any reason as to why the coverage would be necessarily prejudicial. And they should have to do that,” Larsen said.
An ABC-7 viewer captured cell phone video of Crusius as he surrendered to police on Aug. 3, not too far from the scene at the Cielo Vista Walmart. According to court documents, Crusius was stopped at an intersection off of Viscount Blvd and Sunmount Drive.
Court records show Texas DPS Rangers were responding to the shooting, in unmarked vehicles, when they noticed Crusius' vehicle. “Agents and police officers at the intersection then observed a male person (defendant) to exit out of the vehicle with his hands raised in the air and stated out loud to the agents 'I’m the shooter,'" court documents say.
ABC-7 requested any and all video of this public traffic stop on city streets. DPS responded to our request, saying “it conducted a good faith search for any and all information related to your (our) request and has not been able to locate any responsive records.”
On Monday morning, ABC-7 reached out to the Texas Attorney General’s Office for comment. On Tuesday, Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the attorney general, said the office didn’t have anyone available to talk on such short notice.
Date provided ABC-7 with various web links to general information & education about the Texas Public Information Act, but none of those specifically addressed our questions.