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DALLAS (AP) — A violent arrest involving campus police at Rice University in Houston prompted a bill that would force private universities’ police departments to release more information to the public.
Sen. John Whitmire said efforts to learn more about the 2013 arrest of a man who stole a bicycle were stymied by the university, which initially refused to release information on the case or a full video that showed officers beating the suspect with batons.
Whitmire said Rice “hid behind their private university status” in not releasing timely information about the arrest.
“If you’re going to be a licensed police department, public or private, you have to be held accountable and have to disclose your records,” said Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who introduced the bill.
In an effort to bring greater transparency of campus police investigations, the Texas Senate this week unanimously approved a bill that applies open-records laws for public police agencies to private campus police. The legislation now moves to the full House for consideration.
Texas would become the fourth state — behind Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia — with a law requiring private campus police to disclose the facts and circumstances of the crimes reported to them, according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. Lawsuits are pending in Indiana and Ohio seeking the same access, he said.
Whitmire said the Texas bill so far has received no opposition, with the Austin-based Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas providing its support. Rice University spokesman B.J. Almond said the school also has offered its backing.
Almond addressed the arrest in question in a statement this week, saying the suspect had an extensive criminal record and resisted arrest.
“The officers used batons to gain control of the suspect and handcuff him,” Almond said. “An internal investigation concluded that the use of force was justified, and the Harris County grand jury reaffirmed that finding by not returning an indictment.”
But criticism of the Rice campus police’s actions echo complaints directed at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, another private institution, after unarmed student Cameron Redus, 23, was shot five times and killed by a university officer in December 2013.
Brent Perry, an attorney for the family of Redus, said the school initially declined to release video from the officer’s patrol vehicle that would have offered insight into what led the encounter to turn violent.
“I don’t know how a recording of two people yelling at each other in a public parking lot is confidential, but that was their position,” Perry said.
The officer had stopped Redus’ vehicle on suspicion of drunken driving. A grand jury in San Antonio earlier this week declined to indict the officer, but Redus’ family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit.
UIW spokeswoman Debra Del Toro said the university provided the Redus family an explanation of police policies and procedures and a one-page police report, but was told not to release more until the Bexar County district attorney approved it. Earlier this week, an audio recording of the incident was released.
LoMonte said too many private campuses today just offer bare-bone reports of a crime or offense that don’t serve their students, or the public, well.
“Police agencies have the ultimate governmental authority,” he said. “They can take your freedom away and in extreme situations they’re even allowed to take your life.”
Several national incidents in recent years show it’s possible for police to overreact in heated situations and go too far, he said.
“The public must keep watch to monitor how police use that enormous power that we give them,” he said, adding that there should be no distinction between public or private police agencies when it comes to accessing records.
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