The City of Austin must turn over internal police records that they intended to keep secret, according to an opinion letter the Texas Attorney General’s Office delivered to the city in response to a Public Information Request filed by the Chronicle and shared with the Chronicle by multiple City Hall sources.
In June, we requested the full personnel file for Austin Police Officer Christopher Taylor, who goes on trial next month for the on-duty killing of Mike Ramos in 2020. The city responded with a letter three days later, notifying us that they’d asked the A.G. for permission to withhold some of Taylor’s records. In the past, this has been standard practice – state law requires some misconduct records be made public by request, but the law allows law enforcement agencies to maintain secret records in what is known as a “G file.” That file is reserved for documentation of officer misconduct investigations that do not result in disciplinary action.
But the A.G.’s response makes clear that the city no longer has a G file, and so, “the department may not withhold any portion” of the requested records.
The previous labor contract between the city and the Austin Police Association outlined APD’s ability to keep some records secret, as state law allows. Before delivery of the A.G.’s opinion, the city’s Law Department argued that the city could not simply do away with the G File – the only way to get around those protections would be to negotiate exemptions in a labor contract. The A.G.’s opinion disagrees with that interpretation of state law.
Because the city-APA labor agreement lapsed in March, and because of the passage of the Austin Police Oversight Act in May – which prohibits the city from maintaining a G file – the city no longer has a G File, as they described in their own letter to the A.G. “The APOA specifies in section 2-15-6 that the city shall not maintain a confidential internal personnel file under section 143.089(g) and shall release information regarding complaints made against officers in accordance with the Public Information Act,” the city letter states.
The city then asked whether investigation of complaints made before passage of the APOA, when the city still had a G file, could still be kept secret under state law. In a response letter, dated Sept. 18, the A.G. denied that request, writing, “you inform us the city does not maintain confidential internal personnel files under section 143.089(g),” per copies of the opinion given to the Chronicle by City Hall sources. “Accordingly,” the A.G.’s opinion continued, “we find you have failed to demonstrate the information at issue is subject to [G file protection].”
The city has not yet released the records to us and declined to answer when they would be released. In a statement, a city spokesperson confirmed receipt of the A.G. opinion. “We have been operating with the understanding that [state law] provides for the withholding of such material,” the spokesperson said. “The A.G. has indicated the material can be released given the [APOA]. We are seeking clarification from the A.G.’s Office regarding the scope of its ruling.”
We don’t yet know what Taylor’s G file contains, but we do know that the city argued in a motion that the records should be kept from the District Attorney’s Office, which subpoenaed them. District Judge Dayna Blazey ultimately decided that the records would be delivered to Taylor’s defense attorneys, but not to state prosecutors. The state asked the Third Court of Appeals to force Blazey to reconsider her decision, but the 3CA denied the state’s motion.
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