Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. June 26, 2022.

Editorial: It’s time to close the dead suspect loophole

In the aftermath of the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, families of the victims in Uvalde have pleaded with law enforcement for a full accounting of a police response that was catastrophically inept.

Instead of answers, they have received conflicting reports and inaccurate information about how police acted – or didn’t – to stop the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School on May 24.

Attorneys for the city of Uvalde are invoking legal exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act that include a 25-year-old provision known as the “dead suspect loophole” to block the release of information that could help victims’ families, journalists and the public better understand what happened that horrific day, including why police waited 74 minutes to storm the classroom and kill the gunman.

Dead suspect loophole is misused

Over the years, some Texas law enforcement agencies have used the loophole to block the release of 911 calls, surveillance video, bodycam footage and other records in the deaths of suspects in police custody.

Under the loophole, police are not required to publicly release records pertaining to crimes that do not lead to a conviction, including when a suspect dies. The law is rooted in good intention; it was designed to protect the privacy of suspects who are wrongly accused or whose cases are dismissed. But too often the loophole is used by police to stonewall families and journalists seeking information about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of suspects in their custody, such as in the 2019 death of Javier Ambler during an encounter with Williamson County deputies.

“The public policy behind (the law) is not a bad one but it’s been turned completely on its head, and based on what I’ve seen it’s happening in increasing numbers,” Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, told our editorial board last week. Moody has filed bills to close the loophole since 2017.

In a June 16 letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Uvalde attorneys base their argument for witholding information primarily on the law that allows police to do so during an ongoing investigation. But the letter’s inclusion of the statute containing the dead suspect loophole gives us and advocates for government transparency great concern.

Grieving families, the public and journalists are owed full transparency about what happened in Uvalde, not evasion and obfuscation, even if the revelations might embarrass law enforcement. Police mistakes or misconduct are not valid reasons to invoke the dead suspect provision, and authorities in Uvalde should not use it to bar the release of information that could give the families closure and assure the public that there is no coverup.

“When it came into being in the 90s, (the dead suspect provision) was really meant to protect the innocent, but in recent years law enforcement agencies - some, not all - have seen it as a way for them not to release records when it is something they don’t want to release, like maybe poor conduct on the part of police or an embarrassing situation,” Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told our board.

Closing the loophole is a legislative challenge

House Speaker Dade Phelan proposes closing the dead suspect loophole and tweeted this month that it would be unconscionable for police to invoke it in Uvalde.

The Senate, at the behest of Texas police unions, killed an effort to close the loophole in 2019. Moody told our board he will again file a bill to close the loophole or step aside and allow a Republican to file it.

“I think the issue in Uvalde has crystallized why this is important,” Moody said, noting that greater public awareness stemming from the mass shooting and the police response could finally compel passage.

Information about the police response to yet another heinous mass shooting in Texas should not be withheld or swept under the rug. The dead suspect loophole was written with good intentions and when used correctly it can protect the innocent. But the law is often misused.

As information dribbles out, we are learning more and more about law enforcement’s failure to respond swiftly and to save lives in Uvalde.The public deserves to know why police didn’t act more aggressively to stop the massacre. The Texas Legislature should close the dead suspect loophole once and for all, and the city of Uvalde should release information about the police response to which the public is legally entitled.

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Dallas Morning News. June 22, 2022.

Editorial: Extreme Texas GOP platform leaves conservatives with nowhere to go

We are sorry to see the party double down on such a divisive manifesto

It’s time to move along, Republican Party of Texas.

Sadly, it appears the state GOP isn’t ready to do that, much to the detriment of the surely countless number of conservative Texans who are increasingly uncomfortable with the party’s extreme right views. And much to the detriment of the state, which party delegates seem to want to further divide.

As has now been widely reported from coast to coast, Texas Republicans wrapped up their convention in Houston over the weekend by approving a right-of-right platform that calls for a vote to secede, among other things. It included a resolution that President Joe Biden “was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.” And it rejected the certified election results because of what it called widespread fraud in key metropolitan areas in five states, accusing election officials there of being complicit in the fraud.

This is all, of course, despite the fact that supporters of former President Donald Trump took their claims of a stolen election as high as the U.S. Supreme Court without success. Even as recently as Tuesday, election officials in key states testified before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot that they found zero evidence of widespread fraud.

We understand that party conventions are political pep rallies meant to energize the base of voters. And we would have been disappointed but not surprised for a speaker or two to have reiterated these election fraud lies during some of the more raucous, banner-waving events as a nod to the Trump supporters among them.

But we were sorry to see the state GOP go so far as to actually write these claims into the party platform. The resolution calls on all good Texas Republicans to rally voters in November 2022 “and overwhelm any possible fraud.”

Where does this leave middle-of-the road or even non-extreme Texas Republicans? To be a Republican in Texas these days does one have to believe that President Joe Biden is not President Joe Biden?

We don’t think that’s true. And perhaps the popularity of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn among Republicans everywhere in Texas except at his party’s convention is evidence of that hope.

Cornyn was roundly booed by delegates throughout his convention speech last week because he is participating in bipartisan gun talks. As he walked off the stage, he reportedly called the crowd a “mob.”

Cornyn seems to have been distinguishing between those in the fired-up crowd and the conservatives who widely support him. He won his re-election in 2020 with an astounding 76% of the vote in the primary, and as of April he had a 53% approval rating among Texas Republicans, according to a poll by the University of Texas at Austin.

Maybe the state GOP delegates were just particularly riled up given they had not met in person since 2018. Maybe they were particularly angry because their convention coincided with the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. Whatever the reason, we are sorry to see the party entrench itself in this issue for apparently no other purpose than to continue to pit Texan against Texan.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 24, 2022.

Editorial: Texas after Roe: Don’t go beyond abortion trigger law. No punishing women or businesses

We knew it was probably coming, but the Supreme Court’s ruling Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade was nonetheless stunning and monumental.

The states now control abortion policy. In Texas, there will be a push for even more laws against the procedure. But the state has gone quite far enough with its “trigger law,” a near-total ban that will take effect 30 days after the court formalizes its work.

No charging women who seek or obtain an abortion. No punishment for employers who want to cover travel for their Texas workers.

The law scheduled to kick in soon, authored by Southlake Republican Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, will be one of the most restrictive possible. It bars abortion from the moment of fertilization onward. The only exception is when a doctor exercising “reasonable medical judgment” believes that the woman is at “serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function” or death.

LIMITS ON MENTAL-HEALTH EXEMPTIONS

It contains a provision that seems to target possible mental-health concerns, too. Under the law, a doctor cannot perform an abortion because he or she fears the woman “would engage in conduct that might result” in her death or substantial harm.

And it’s serious business: If the abortion is successful, anyone who performed or induced it can be convicted of a first-degree felony, punishable by up to life in prison, and a fine of at least $100,000.

There’s no exemption for rape or incest, as even many ardent abortion opponents would want. It does, at least, declare that women are not to be charged or prosecuted, though some of Capriglione’s Republican colleagues might push for that, too.

The burden upon Texas women determined to obtain an abortion — there are about 7 million of child-bearing age here — will be substantial enough. The Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights advocacy group, calculates that the average Texan would need to travel more than 500 miles, based on the state’s size and the likely abortion policies in neighboring states.

All of this became law in Texas without much notice in last year’s regular legislative session. Perhaps that was because of the focus on the “heartbeat bill” that effectively bars abortions after six weeks by allowing civil suits against providers. Perhaps it was because a reversal of Roe was still theoretical.

When the reality of the Supreme Court’s ruling hit, the debate might have shifted. Texas Republican leaders would certainly still ban the procedure, but perhaps they could have been swayed to include more exemptions.

Abortion opponents were winning the argument; abortion rates have been dropping for years. Confronted with the consequences of victory, might they have softened? We can’t know because the Legislature acted pre-emptively.

WHAT ABOUT TEXAS ‘HEARTBEAT’ BILL?

Still in play, too, is the heartbeat bill. Capriglione’s legislation makes clear that civil actions are still in place. With Roe gone, there may not be grounds for courts to reverse the law. So even if lawmakers resist the temptation to punish companies that help employees obtain abortions in other states, the courts could do it for them.

For a state that’s all about business and jobs, it would be a mistake.

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Houston Chronicle. June 21, 2022.

Editorial: Hey Texas Republicans, look what your party is doing while you’re away

Texas seceding from the union. Repealing the Voting Rights Act. A veritable ban on bipartisanship. And, oh yes, continued cheerleading of the ‘Big Lie’ contending that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

How many rank-and-file Texas Republicans out there — the folks who may pull the lever but don’t necessarily pull the strings — really feel this list reflects their priorities? Most people want government, and those whom we elect to represent us in it, to be sensible, functional and somewhat realistic in its goals. Yet, these items were among the extreme positions approved as part of the platform of the Republican Party of Texas at its six-day convention last week. And they weren’t even the half of it.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a four-term incumbent and senior member of the Senate GOP, was roundly booed for having the audacity to lead bipartisan negotiations for what would be the most meaningful, if minor, step toward gun reform in more than a decade. Before uttering even a word, Cornyn was nearly shouted off the stage, derided as a “R.I.N.O.” — Republican In Name Only — for working on a bill that most Americans support.

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, once seen as a rising star in the party, was physically accosted at the convention by members of the Proud Boys. One of Crenshaw’s assailants called him a “traitor” who should be hung for treason. Crenshaw’s apparent crime? Supporting sending military aid to Ukraine and having the gumption to call out “grifters” in his own party.

And Gov. Greg Abbott? He didn’t even enter the building, not surprising since so far he hasn’t been able to win the support of either of the primary opponents he trounced in March. His ephemeral presence for brief remarks on Thursday at a bar across the street from the convention center seemed to suggest he knew exactly the kind of reception he might have to contend with. In an earlier introductory speech, Matt Rinaldi, the Texas GOP chairman, notably praised other Republicans — including another presidential hopeful, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — but never once mentioned Abbott.

Forget Kumbaya moments and serious policy debate. This was a full-on circus.

Just how far would the party activists take the GOP of Texas off the rails? Well, we encourage you to carefully read the mission statement drafted at the convention. It reads much like a document from a dystopian alternate reality, calling on the Texas Legislature to create a referendum on secession for November 2023. As we noted above, it wants a full repeal of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. It adopted language treating homosexuality as an ‘abnormal lifestyle choice’ and rejects “normalizing” transgender individuals. And it endorses abolishing the Federal Reserve and for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations.

Some of these positions aren’t new. And state party conventions generally tend to swing to the extreme. But when those extremes threaten to take over, as they have in the GOP, it’s time for the rest of the party to apply some discipline, or at least to attempt a course-correction.

That doesn’t seem to be happening.

Where are all the reasonable card-carrying Texas Republicans, who must be embarrassed by their party’s convention? How much of this kind of nonsense are they willing to tolerate? Surely, there’s room in Texas for a Republican Party that disassociates itself from threats of violence against office-holders who stray from even the strictest party lines.

How can the party of George W. Bush and his father, for that matter, have changed so much in so few years? We have to wonder whether Bush, the former governor and president who advocated for a bigger GOP tent and more moderate positions on issues such as immigration, would have made it out of the building unscathed.

There were just 8,000 people at the convention last week. They are but a tiny fraction of the nearly 6 million who cast ballots for Republican candidates in Texas in 2020. We’re asking those Texas Republicans who want their party to truly reflect their views to reject the noise coming out of their party’s convention. Don’t just ignore it, counter it. And don’t just speak out, get involved.

And to those GOP candidates who seem to have so angered the fringes, we say good on you. Keep doing what you think is right. We wish you’d do it more often. Some of that work, as in the guns compromise championed by Cornyn, could truly be life-saving.

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San Antonio Express-News. June 24, 2022.

Editorial: Layers of failure build before, during, after Uvalde

“And let me emphasize something that I know you all know. But the reality is, as horrible as what happened, it could have been worse. The reason it was not worse is because law enforcement officials did what they do.

“They showed amazing courage by running toward gunfire for the singular purpose of trying to save lives. And it is a fact that because of their quick response, getting on the scene, being able to respond to the gunman and eliminate the gunman, they were able to save lives.”

— Gov. Greg Abbott, May 25

Uvalde press conference

How Texas Gov. Greg Abbott could be so misinformed the day after the second-deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history is a question that demands an honest answer.

But his words are as significant as they are hollow because they set forth a cascade of misinformation and obfuscation about the law enforcement response May 24 at Robb Elementary School, where an 18-year-old gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers.

Nearly five weeks later, we now know law enforcement officers did not show “amazing courage” by “running toward gunfire” to save lives. Instead, they waited in the school hallway for more than an hour, amassing equipment, as the gunman periodically fired shots and children desperately called 911, as a dying teacher spoke with her husband, a school police officer on the scene who was denied the chance to save her. A grieving public wonders how many lives might have been saved. For families of the children and teachers murdered, words are inadequate.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testified Tuesday to a Senate committee, firmly casting blame: “The only thing stopping a hallway of dedicated officers from entering room 111 and 112 was the on-scene commander, who decided to place the lives of officers before the lives of children.”

McCraw’s damning comments, aimed at Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, the embattled police chief of Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District who is now on administrative leave, may prove definitive in understanding the bumbling, tragic law enforcement response in Uvalde. But his scope is too narrow, his assigned blame too tidy. The failure here is widespread, not limited to Arredondo, who told the Texas Tribune, incredulously, he did not know he was in charge.

While McCraw’s testimony was powerful, he has been no point of light in this dark moment. He initially provided inaccurate information. His statement to senators that DPS troopers at the school “did not have the authority by law” to take command of the scene is painfully weak given the moral and humanitarian urgency.

While the law enforcement response has sparked our nation’s outrage and demands accountability, it is also just one layer of failure in this tragedy. For years, federal and state policymakers have failed to prevent mass shootings. In the aftermath of Uvalde, state and local officials have failed to provide accurate and timely information. And once again, Republican lawmakers have failed to tighten lax gun laws. At every turn in this tragedy, adults have failed Uvalde’s children. We see five layers of failure.

A faltering of political will

The first is a failure to prevent mass shootings and other forms of gun violence. Before we turn our attention to the law enforcement response, let’s reflect on what we are asking police to respond to.

Yes, the 1 hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds it took for law enforcement to enter the adjoining classrooms and kill the shooter is horrific, but between 11:33 a.m. and 11:36 a.m., the killer fired more than 100 rounds. Wielding an AR-style rifle, purchased just after his 18th birthday, he slaughtered children and then overwhelmed officers who were on the scene within three minutes.

In a mass shooting, three minutes is an eternity. Before officers amassed in the hallway, before Arredondo fumbled for a key the Express-News reported he did not need to open the classroom door, so much of the carnage had occurred. If we banned these types of weapons or — at minimum — raised the purchase age, a tragedy like this is far less likely to happen.

But Republican Texas lawmakers have refused to consider such reforms, much less universal background checks, red flag laws and safe storage requirements. They allow bad actors to abuse the Second Amendment. This is the original failure. Don’t lose sight of it.

When helpers don’t help

Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

But here, the helpers failed. They waited for shields. They waited for SWAT. They waited for rifles. They waited as children called for help. This is the second failure.

It was an “abject failure and antithetical to everything we have learned over the past two decades,” McCraw said at the Senate hearing.

The guiding tactical response learned from the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 that killed 13 is that officers should not wait for SWAT. They go in, despite the risk of being outgunned, to stop the killing.

As Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar emailed deputies after the Uvalde massacre: “In an Active Shooter scenario, end the threat FIRST!”

In Uvalde, we know the killer entered the school at 11:33 a.m. and began firing shots. We know police, armed with rifles, were on the scene within three minutes. We know Arredondo arrived at 11:36 a.m. We know that as early as 11:41 a.m. officers could hear shots from within the classroom and that by 11:48 a.m. UCISD police officer Ruben Ruiz was on the scene, telling other officers his wife, Eva Mireles, had been shot. Police would detain Ruiz and take his gun.

We know that by 11:50 a.m. an officer can be heard saying, “Chief is in charge,” and we know that minutes later a DPS agent said, “If there’s kids in there, we need to go in there.” But he was told that Arredondo would decide that.

No one would try to open the door. In a mass shooting, every second counts. It took law enforcement 4,448 seconds to breach the classroom door.

Misleading the public

Almost immediately, officials praised the law enforcement response, wrapping officers in the rhetoric of valor. This is the third failure: misleading the public.

“It could have been worse,” Abbott said during the May 25 press conference.

Such careless, flaccid language. Even more troubling was his certainty, at the time, that law enforcement officers capably intervened.

“It was a fact that because of their quick response,” he said, “they were able to save lives.”

But it was not a fact. Abbott would later say he was “livid” for being “misled.” But who misled him? Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin Jr. has asserted it was DPS, but a spokeswoman for Abbott would not elaborate.

Other major details have been corrected. No “brave” school resource officer “approached” and “engaged” the shooter outside the school, as McCraw said May 25. A teacher did not prop open a door, allowing the shooter access, as McCraw also asserted. In fact, the teacher closed the door — as she called 911 — but it did not lock.

And then there is Arredondo, who said he was not in charge, has asserted classroom doors were locked and wasted precious time searching for a master key to gain entry. We have since learned the doors likely were unlocked, but no one tried to open them, and Arredondo was very much viewed as in command.

We teach children to speak with honesty and take responsibility for their actions. But we see none of this in the adults now shifting blame over Uvalde.

Hassling the press

This brings us to the fourth failure: intimidating the press and refusing to honor public records requests.

With media descended upon Uvalde, police and bikers from across the state obstructed and threatened reporters, including those from the Express-News.

At funerals, law enforcement officers ordered reporters off sidewalks and public streets, and they blocked photographers trying to take pictures from public places. Bikers got in their faces.

There was an obvious tension at play. As journalists questioned the official police-response narrative, law enforcement sought to shut them out and deny access. In doing so, they shut out the public from greater understanding. Intimate portraits of the children and teachers open our hearts, just as an accurate understanding of what happened informs potential policies.

“The news reporters are about getting to the truth, and that’s why they’re being obstructed and treated poorly, because there are some folks, apparently, who don’t want the truth to come out,” Kelley Shannon, executive director for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told us.

That pursuit continues with myriad records requests from journalists — including at least a dozen from the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle — yet to be fulfilled as the Uvalde County district attorney, the city of Uvalde and DPS play off one another to hold back records. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat who represents Uvalde, has sued DPS.

“Weeks have come and gone, and yet families who lost their children have not been told by their government the basic information about who was on site as their children bled, what tools were at their disposal to stop the gunman, and exactly why they decided to wait instead of act,” he said in a statement.

Grieving families deserved an immediate accurate timeline. So did the broader public. It is literally the least officials could have done.

Threatening the future

And so we arrive at the fifth failure: failing to prevent future mass shootings or respond at the state level with moral urgency. Rather than call a special session, Abbott has formed special committees. Rather than consider gun safety laws, he has emphasized mental health.

Even the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which we support and is the most robust federal gun safety reforms in decades, is, in many ways, modest. It offers enhanced background checks for would-be gun buyers who are younger than 21, closes the “boyfriend loophole” to include dating partners in prohibiting domestic abusers from owning a gun; provides incentives for states to adopt red flag laws; and goes big on mental health funding, especially for schools.

We view such reforms as a starting point, not a culmination. And yet at the recent Texas GOP convention, attendees booed Sen. John Cornyn, who led negotiations. For many, even these modest reforms, which will save lives, are anathema. What has become of us?

Taken together, these failures represent a crisis of governance. Abbott and other public officials failed to be accurate with the public about what happened in Uvalde, just as they continue to fail to be honest about the role guns play in gun violence.

It could have been worse, Abbott said. With each revelation, it is worse. Be livid.

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