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Bill to enforce reporting of police shootings stumbles, then passes

After failing by one vote on the House floor Wednesday night, a bill to penalize law enforcement agencies that don't report police shootings to the state was reconsidered and passed.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, on the House floor on May 6, 2017.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include final passage of the bill in the Texas House. 

After failing by one vote on the House floor Wednesday night, a bill to penalize law enforcement agencies that don't report police shootings to the state was reconsidered and tentatively passed on a quick, quiet voice vote Thursday morning. 

House Bill 245 by Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, would add enforcement to a law passed last legislative session that requires law enforcement agencies in Texas to send a report to the attorney general’s office anytime an officer is involved in a shooting that results in injury or death. The new bill would create a civil penalty of $1,000 a day for departments that don’t comply with the existing law.

The bill failed by one vote Wednesday night, with 71 against the bill and 70 for it. A motion to reconsider the bill was brought up Thursday morning, as expected, and passed. It still must pass the lower chamber a final time. (Update, May 12: The Texas House gave final approval to HB 245 in a 112-21 vote on Friday.)

“This is one of those situations where we really do need to be at 100 percent compliance, and we’re actually very close,” Johnson said in a House committee hearing on the bill in March. “And I think between this bill and greater education on the bill we passed last session, I think we’re going to get there very quickly.”

Johnson has argued that the only way to prove there is a problem with police shootings in Texas is to have a complete dataset for policymakers and academics to study.

A 2016 Tribune investigation highlighted the issue of inconsistent and unreliable information that exists on police shootings in Texas that occurred before the reporting law went into effect. Some departments freely posted information on their own websites, while others fought open records requests or gave heavily redacted records.  

Currently, agencies must report a shooting to the attorney general within 30 days of the incident, but there is no punishment if agencies don’t comply. Since the reporting law went into effect in September 2015, most seem to be reporting their shootings, but there have been instances where reports are filed months later, often only after being approached by news outlets.

Under the new bill, if the attorney general’s office were notified of a missing report and confirms the absence, it would be able to notify the agency involved in the shooting that it has seven days to file a report. After those seven days, the fine of $1,000 a day would start. If the department had another unreported incident they were fined for in the last five years, the initial penalty would be $10,000, with $1,000 for each subsequent day a report was not filed. The money collected would be allocated to the state's Crime Victims' Compensation Fund.

The House vote on the bill came after last Saturday's fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the Dallas area. Edwards was a passenger in a car being driven away from police when he was shot in the head with a rifle by Balch Springs Police Officer Roy Oliver. Oliver was fired from the department for violating departmental policies last Tuesday and arrested on a murder charge by the Dallas County Sheriff's Office on Friday night.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Johnson called for action on HB 245 and sent a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus on Friday afternoon asking for a related bill to be brought forth before time runs out on Thursday to bring House bills to the chamber's floor. House Bill 673 would have the attorney general's office create an online portal to collect, compile, and analyze police shooting reports filed by law enforcement agencies. Currently, agencies fill out single-page reports and send them to the state.

On Monday afternoon, HB 673 was placed on the House's calendar for Wednesday, but because the chamber was still set to consider bills slated for the previous Saturday's calendar on Thursday evening, it probably won't reach the floor for debate before the Thursday night deadline.

Johnson said the failure on Wednesday was caused by his fellow members being confused on what the bill was and retaliation for the Democrats “chubbing,” or prolonging the debate, on the previous bill. Just before Johnson’s bill was laid out, House members debated for hours on a bill related to trucking.

“The bottom line is we definitely have the votes to pass the bill, and I think most of the issue yesterday was confusion and getting caught in the middle of some product of some partisan [conflict],” Johnson told The Texas Tribune Thursday.

Johnson acknowledged there is at least a small group of legislators who oppose any fines imposed on law enforcement, and said he expects more debate on the bill when it is brought up for final passage Friday.

Read related Tribune coverage: 

  • In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old by police on Saturday night, Democrats in the state Capitol have pointed to relevant bills they say could prevent similar deaths and hold police accountable.
  • The Tribune’s Unholstered project from 2016 presents the results of a nearly yearlong investigation into when and why officers used lethal force in Texas, examining shootings that occurred in the state's largest cities between 2010 and 2015.

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Courts Criminal justice State government 85th Legislative Session Attorney General's Office Department of Public Safety Eric Johnson Texas Legislature