HOUSTON - A Houston-area state senator has filed a bill that would require private university police departments to be brought under the auspices of the Texas Public Information Act.
Private university officers are licensed by the state and have the same authority as any other police officer. Yet because these officers work for a private university, they are shielded from the type of public scrutiny that all other police officers face.
"When people don't want to explain their actions, it makes you wonder why," said state Sen. John Whitmire, who filed the proposed legislation.
Whitmire filed the bill in direct response to a Channel 2 Investigation that aired in November 2013 and involved a controversial arrest made by Rice University police officers.
At the time, Channel 2 obtained a small portion of a patrol car video from a source that shows the arrest of Ivan Joe Waller. The video shows officers repeatedly striking Waller with their batons after he stole a bait bicycle from campus. Even though the arrest took place on a public street, off campus, Rice officials initially declined our requests to see the full video or look at any records.
University officials told Channel 2 that since its police department is part of a private university, it is not required under the law to provide this information to the public.
A grand jury investigation was launched after stories aired. The grand jury cleared the officers of wrongdoing, but District Attorney Devon Anderson called some of their tactics "disturbing." After the grand jury decision, Rice released the entire video and maintained the level of force seen on the video was necessary because Waller refused to obey officers' orders to take his hand out from under his stomach.
Whitmire, chair of the senate criminal justice committee, filed the bill to make private university police departments subject to the same level of public inspection that other police departments are required to undergo.
"If you're sanctioned and approved by the state, you ought to have to open your records," said Whitmire.
If the bill becomes law, any member of the public could ask to see reports and records from a private university police department. This includes policies and procedures, which the University of the Incarnate Word police department in San Antonio refused to make public after one of its officers shot and killed a student at an off-campus apartment complex.
The case is still under investigation by the Bexar County District Attorney's Office, but police said Cameron Redus was attacking the officer with his own baton.
"Universities don't want to deal with that public exposure," said University of Houston-Downtown criminal justice professor Larry Karson. "The premise of the Freedom of Information Act requirements is to make government agencies accountable to the people they serve."
Karson said even though private university police departments were created to protect campuses, they interact with the general public all the time through sporting and entertainment events. Karson said private university police officers also have the authority to enforce the law off campus, so he questions why they don't face the same public scrutiny other police officers face.
"I don't think most people in Texas want to allow any peace officer to have that kind of power to do things and never expose themselves to public scrutiny," said Karson. "This whole issue, if you hadn't done the story, would never have been exposed to the legislature."
Channel 2 tried to talk with officials at 21 private universities that have police departments. Only half of these institutions returned our calls. Some universities had no comment, others told us the Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas nonprofit association would speak on their behalf. Officials from this organization have not returned our calls. Only Le Tourneau University told us it supports this bill.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis co-authored the bill. The bill has been sent to the Criminal Justice Committee for a hearing.
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