Missing reports prompt review of Texas police shootings law

Police in Texas could soon find it easier to report officer-involved shootings to the state — but they also might pay a price for failing to do so.

Texas is one of seven states that require law enforcement agencies to provide information about officer-involved shootings to the state, and it could become the first to mete out punishment to those that don’t.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, said he is pushing to “put some teeth” into Texas’ statute after learning that up to a dozen fatal shootings hadn’t been reported since the law went into effect in 2015. He’s also trying to create a web portal that would make it easier for law enforcement officials to report crime data, including officer-involved shootings.

RELATED: State database of officer-involved shootings is missing 12 cases

The law, which was sponsored by Johnson, requires agencies to provide information about the shootings in a one-page report emailed to the state attorney general’s office within 30 days, but there are no enforcement or tracking mechanisms.

“For the most part, departments are doing a pretty good job. … Voluntary compliance is just not quite getting us to 100 percent,” said Johnson, who has proposed withholding some state money from agencies that don’t comply.

Supporters of such reporting laws say they can help authorities and the public understand how often and why officers use deadly force. But legal experts and researchers say a lack of consequences for failing to report or a mechanism for tracking missing reports can lead to incomplete information and a lack of accountability.

“We’ve been pushing this (reporting of police shootings) for several decades. … But no one’s really stepped up except a few states and the states that have I think are mostly like Texas … without any kind of teeth in the requirement,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor and an expert on police use of force.

RELATED: Analysis finds 20 percent of people shot by Texas police were unarmed

Under Texas’ law, once law enforcement agencies report an officer-involved shooting, the attorney general’s office then has five days to post the report related to each shooting online.

One bill introduced by Johnson this legislative session would make any Texas law enforcement agency that fails to submit a report on a shooting ineligible to receive criminal justice grant money from the governor’s office for a year. In 2015 and 2016, the governor’s office provided more than $52 million in grants for such things as body cameras, anti-gang centers and training.

The Texas Municipal Police Association supports the bill.

“We recognize the collection of data is probably in most cases helpful to law enforcement, not hurtful,” said Kevin Lawrence, the group’s executive director.

Attention was drawn to unreported fatal shootings after freelance journalist Eva Ruth Moravec reported about them as part of “Point of Impact,” a yearlong series on police shootings. Since then, 10 of the missing reports have been filed, according to an Associated Press review, and the attorney general’s office says it’s looking into the other two shootings.

RELATED: After initial delay, agencies report 10 officer-involved shootings

Both Johnson and Lawrence said they don’t believe any law enforcement agency intentionally failed to report a shooting, but some agencies might have been unaware of the requirement.

A second bill by Johnson would create a website where agencies could submit required information. Agencies currently email their reports to the attorney general’s office and that office posts them on its website as PDFs. Johnson says they’re not user-friendly and aren’t part of a searchable database. His proposed website could generate reports that could be easily accessed by the public.

Other states with laws requiring law enforcement agencies to report officer-involved shootings or use of deadly force incidents are California, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina and Oregon. In Connecticut and Maine, state authorities investigate any cases in which an officer uses deadly force, with the final reports available online.

But the states don’t have a way to track whether shootings are being reported.

“We don’t have any sort of audit function built into our system. We trust that the agencies are reporting to us what accurately happened in their jurisdiction,” said Ashley Cox, uniform crime reporting manager with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

Johnson praised efforts by the media and the public to track down missing cases, but he said the responsibility can’t fall solely on them and “it’s something we’re going to have to address in the legislation.”

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