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A state district judge this week ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin the process of releasing records related to the May 2022 Uvalde school shooting that the agency has shielded from the public for over a year.
The decision by 261st Civil District Court Judge Daniella DeSeta Lyttle marks a win for a coalition of news organizations, including The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, which sued the agency in August. The lawsuit sought the release of records that would bring more clarity to law enforcement’s failed response, including emails, video footage, call logs, emergency communications and forensic records.
“The public deserves a full accounting of what happened that day, and we’re glad that the judge has begun that process,” said Reid Pillifant, an associate attorney with Haynes Boone, a law firm that represents the news organizations. “We’re hopeful DPS won’t fight this decision, and we’ll begin the process of providing transparency.”
DPS did not directly answer the newsrooms’ questions, including whether it plans to appeal the court’s decision. In a statement emailed to ProPublica and the Tribune on Friday, a spokesperson for the agency said that the litigation is ongoing and that “the department will carefully consider its options when a Final Judgment is entered.”
Lyttle instructed DPS to submit a detailed list of redactions it wants to make to the public records by Aug. 31. The judge said that the court anticipated discussing the proposed redactions in September.
In its court filings, DPS has argued releasing records could interfere with an ongoing investigation into the shooting. The agency continued to defend this argument during a March hearing, which came months after the agency said its initial report was finished. DPS did not answer questions as to whether its investigation has been finalized. The agency has selectively disclosed some of the information during press conferences and in public hearings conducted by the state Legislature.
Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell joined DPS in fighting the coalition’s lawsuit that month. She argued the disclosure could jeopardize any criminal charges she could seek in response to the agency’s investigation. Mitchell also claimed that “all of the families of the deceased children” had told her they supported withholding the records. But lawyers representing the majority of the families argued that was not true and joined the news organizations in support of the release.
“These Uvalde families fundamentally deserve the opportunity to gain the most complete factual picture possible of what happened to their children,” Brent Ryan Walker, one of the attorneys representing the families, wrote in March.
Mitchell did not respond to questions submitted by ProPublica and the Tribune on Friday.
The coalition has also sued the city and county of Uvalde for similarly withholding an array of records, including the layout of the school, which is set to be torn down. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Laura Lee Prather, a First Amendment lawyer also with Haynes Boone, said she hopes the lawsuit will, in the future, encourage agencies to produce information like 911 calls and body camera footage as quickly as possible.
“That’s how you promote trust in law enforcement,” Prather said. “It’s also how you prevent future tragedies.”
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