When someone dies in the custody of Texas law enforcement, state law requires that agency to submit a specific report to the attorney general detailing the incident. The report is meant to promote transparency and accountability, but a KXAN investigation finds hundreds of reports in recent years filed incomplete or late, leaving the public and families without answers.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — If someone died in police custody in a far-flung part of Texas in 1983 – and it didn’t make the news – you might never have known. Such cases could easily be kept quiet, potentially swept under the rug and away from scrutiny.
That’s how Walter Martinez described a dark era in law enforcement transparency — the early 80s — a period, he added, that lately doesn’t seem so far removed from what’s happening across the state today. Questions over police tactics and public information are once again top of mind.
Back then, Martinez was entering his first session as a Democratic state representative from San Antonio. He knew no state agency kept track of all the people dying in jail, prison and police custody. Without that information, it was exceedingly difficult to analyze patterns of deaths or identify solutions, he said.
Martinez changed that. With sponsorship from then-state-senator and current Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, Martinez filed and passed Texas’ law requiring jails and other law enforcement agencies to submit a death report to the Texas attorney general’s office.
The new law required law enforcement agencies to provide details about the incident and cause of death. The reports would be public, and the penalty for failing to file them a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail. At that time, the law required the reports to be submitted within 20 days of a death, but that timeframe was later lengthened to 30 days.
“The purpose was to create a central databank and hopefully with that databank to begin to analyze it and look at what is the problem, and how can we begin to address future legislation to address this problem,” Martinez said in an interview with KXAN. “It was about trying to create some transparency and some accountability in the system and to hopefully use this data for future legislation.”
To date, more than 13,000 custodial death reports have been filed, providing perhaps the most comprehensive collection of in-custody death records in Texas. The information is available online, categorized and searchable by law enforcement department and deceased individuals’ names.
Martinez said he passed the most robust bill he could at the time, with the intention of returning to improve it later. But, he didn’t win a second term and significant alterations to the law have not happened.
While the in-custody death database provides critical transparency in fatal cases, a KXAN investigation has found there are still lingering problems.
Despite the current law requiring agencies to file the reports within 30 days and to include all relevant facts, such as a cause of death, a KXAN review of the last five years of reports found hundreds have been filed late and more than a hundred others have been left incomplete for over a year.
KXAN used records from the attorney general’s office as well as data compiled by the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that collects and provides criminal justice data to the public, to better understand the problem.
Most cases have been reported correctly, and the failures found by KXAN represent a fraction of all cases submitted to the attorney general. Still, KXAN found no instance of enforcement or punishment in Texas’ counties where the most violations apparently happened.
“You know, you feel bad that the intent that you had for that piece of legislation was not — is not — being achieved,” Martinez said. “It’s unfortunate. I think it’s bad.”
Law enforcement transparency and reform were a primary focus for Martinez back then, he said. Now, with the deaths of numerous people of color in police custody in recent years sparking national protests and calls for criminal justice reform, another lawmaker says he is interested in reexamining the custodial death report law during the 2021 legislative session.