Starting in September, Texas law enforcement agencies could be fined $1,000 a day if they don’t report police shootings to the state in a timely manner.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed into law a bill that will add teeth to a law passed two years ago requiring departments to report to the attorney general’s office any time an officer is involved in a shooting that results in injury or death. State Rep. Eric Johnson, the author of House Bill 245, said repeatedly during this year's legislative session that the threat of a fine will ensure the state has complete data on police shootings, a requirement to accurately study the issue in the state.
"I'm glad that he signed the bill, and I believe that we're well on our way to leading the nation in getting to the bottom of what causes these fatal encounters between police and citizens, because we're going to have the data,” Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, said Thursday.
Last year, a Tribune investigation into Texas police shootings highlighted the inconsistency across departments in keeping records on the incidents before the state reporting requirement took effect in September 2015. Some departments volunteered information on their own websites, but others fought public information requests, gave heavily redacted records or said they did not keep track of police shootings.
After the state mandated law enforcement agencies report shootings to the attorney general’s office last legislative session, most have complied. But there have been some cases where reports were filed months late, often only after the media pointed out the information was missing.
Under the new law, departments will still get some leeway if they don’t report a shooting right away. There is a 30-day window to file a report after the shooting. After that, if the state is informed of an unreported shooting, the attorney general’s office can investigate and notify the department it has seven days to report it. Only then will the state be able to fine the department $1,000 a day, with the money being funneled into the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund.
Rep. Tony Tinderholt, an Arlington Republican, expressed concerns last month about fining police departments before the House voted to send the bill to the governor, saying that it is a large fine coming from taxpayer dollars. Rep. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford who chairs the House panel that voted out the bill, countered that the notification process in place makes the bill "a gentle nudge rather than a hammer."
As it moved through the Legislature, the bill initially faced some unexpected opposition on the House floor when it failed by one vote, caused partially by what Johnson called Republican retaliation for Democrats purposefully drawing out debate on the bill heard just before HB 245. The bill was quietly brought up for reconsideration the next day, and easily drew enough approval on a final vote.
On the other side of the Capitol, the bill breezed through the Texas Senate, though state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, failed to add to the bill a requirement for the attorney general’s office to build and maintain an online portal to collect and analyze police shooting reports. The language — taken from another of Johnson's bills that failed to make it to the House floor — was added in committee but struck from the legislation on the Senate floor.
Johnathan Silver contributed to this story.