AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Some Texans are calling for leaders to take action after mass shootings — rather than providing just thoughts and prayers.
In a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, Gov. Greg Abbott requested they begin special legislative committees to develop recommendations on “school safety, mental health, social media, police training, firearm safety, and more.”
The recommendations could lead to legislation to be considered in the 2023 session.
This is less action than some Texans have called for. Some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have asked Abbott to call them back for an entire special legislative session. This would allow new legislation to pass more immediately in response to the mass shooting. Without a special session, any legislative action would have to wait until next year.
“Let us debate. Let us pass legislation,” said State Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston). “I don’t want the creation of another sham committee. Let us discuss common sense gun reform,” she added.
Part of Abbott’s letter reads, “I request that these committees review what steps previous legislatures have enacted, what resources the State has made available to local school districts, and make recommendations to the Legislature and the Executive Branch so that meaningful action can be made…”
The Governor previously pointed to a similar approach taken in 2018, after a 17-year-old killed 10 people at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Abbott called for a series of roundtables and laid out extensive school safety plan recommendations. Lawmakers also passed bills in response in the 2019 session, including the creation of a Texas Child Mental Health consortium and requiring school districts to set up “threat assessment teams” of people trained to spot red flags.
Abbott, in his letter, said the new special committees he’s requesting represent an effort to “reassess the twin issues of school safety and mass violence.”
Republican State Rep. Jeff Leach thanked Gov. Abbott for calling for the special committees. He had previously backed calls for a special session. State Sen. Kel Seliger is the lone Republican still supporting efforts to bring lawmakers back to Austin.
“We can punt it until January, but I don’t think that does much to reassure families… who expect us to do something now,” Seliger said in a telephone interview. The Amarillo Republican is not seeking reelection.
Lt. Gov. Patrick named 11 senators to serve on the special legislative committee in response to the Uvalde shootings. The State Senator who represents Uvalde is not among them.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, State Sen. Roland Gutierrez called being left off a “slap in the face.” The Senate committee also omitted Democrat Cesar Blanco, the State Senator representing El Paso. That city was the site of a mass shooting at a Walmart in 2019.
Gutierrez, a Democrat, gained attention in the days after the shootings when he interrupted one of Governor Abbott’s news conferences to ask him to call a special session.
Speaker Phelan emphasized that the investigation into what happened in Uvalde is still ongoing, and expressed frustration that details about the response have been changing. On Friday, he announced the creation of a House committee to investigate the shooting.
Texas’ “Dead Suspect Loophole” could be used to block the release of law enforcement records related to last month’s school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead, transparency advocates and lawmakers fear.
For years, KXAN investigators have explored Texas law enforcement’s widespread use of an open records measure known as the “Dead Suspect Loophole.” Lawmakers have repeatedly sought to close the loophole, which allows police to withhold information in closed criminal cases that don’t go through the court process — even when a suspect dies in police custody.
After the Uvalde school shooting and the gunman’s death, some transparency advocates — even Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan — worry police may try to use the loophole to keep important details about what really happened from the public and even victims’ families.
Outside the entrance to the Texas State Capitol, there is a growing memorial of flowers, candles and stuffed animals. The faces of fourth-graders murdered in Uvalde line the steps.
“It’s so sad,” said Kelley Shannon, looking at the photos. “I hope that these families and the community of Uvalde get the transparency that they need and deserve.”
Shannon is the executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. She says families deserve answers and accountability, especially given the shifting explanations coming from law enforcement.
“I think what everyone’s realizing is we definitely need this transparency in Uvalde,” she said.
She worries the “Dead Suspect Loophole” could be used to block the release of records that could shed light on how law enforcement responded that day. She has seen law enforcement agencies deny records citing the loophole, even to family members.
“We’ve had all kinds of families come to the Capitol and explain how they could not get simple, basic police records,” said Shannon. “Because their loved ones died in police custody.”
The loophole was used to keep records related to Javier Ambler’s 2019 death in the custody of Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies secret for 15 months. The family of 21-year-old Herman Titus, who died at the Travis County Jail in 2017, struggled for years to get any information about his death.
In the last three legislative sessions, State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) filed bills to close the loophole. Those efforts failed.
“The intent of the bill isn’t to cause any issues in an active case,” he said during a 2018 hearing. “What we’re dealing with are closed cases that fall into an exception that they shouldn’t have.”
“These records belong to the public,” he said during a 2019 hearing with then Chair Dade Phelan. “Government transparency is government transparency. Even when it’s not pretty.”
Moody said the original intent of the exception to the Public Information Act, put in place in 1997, was to protect people under investigation. Police unions across the state have fought changes to the law.
“This situation crystallizes why we need to close this loophole, right?” he said. “This shouldn’t even be an option.”
The revived idea to close the loophole is getting support from Phelan, the Republican Speaker of the House. On Twitter, he called it “common sense.”
“More than anything, the families of the #Uvalde victims need honest answers and transparency. Period,” Phelan tweeted Wednesday. “It would be absolutely unconscionable to use the ‘dead suspect loophole’ to thwart the release of information that is so badly needed and deserved right now.”
“I think it’s time we pass legislation to end the dead suspect loophole for good in 2023,” he added.
Moody responded that it is time to “end the abuse of this loophole once and for all.”
State Rep. Eddie Morales Jr. (D-Eagle Pass) also tweeted interest in ending the loophole.
“I’ll have my Capitol staff look into this and work with Lege Counsel to find ways to address the loophole,” he tweeted, “or end it thru the filing of a bill.”
“There are a lot of questions that have to be answered in that community,” Moody told KXAN. “Those families deserve answers.”
Texas districts called on to fast-track school safety audits
School districts are now being asked to fast-track their school safety audit reports.
These audits are due every three years. Campuses originally had until September 2023 to get them submitted to their districts.
This stems from Gov. Greg Abbott announcing he wants the Texas School Safety Center (TxSSC) to immediately review these policies after the Uvalde school shooting.
By the start of the next school year, Abbott said the TxSSC must conduct comprehensive school safety reviews to confirm all Texas public schools are following state law on active threat plans.
The TxSSC must confirm control procedures with all public schools, such as single-access points, locked classroom doors, visitor check-in procedures and exterior door locks. In addition to making sure all schools have procedures consistent with state standards, TxSSC must also do random inspections.
“Your team should begin conducting in-person, unannounced, random intruder detection audits on school districts,” Abbott wrote. “Also, the TxSSC should immediately begin working with my office and the Legislature on recommendations to improve current security systems and determine the funding necessary to continue the work of hardening our schools against outside threats.”
Something new the center is being asked to do is work with the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to do random visits to campuses to check how secure the building is, at different access points.
TxSSC said it feels it can accomplish what Abbott is asking by his deadline.
Abbott on Thursday also sent a letter to the TEA asking that it provide strategies to districts, to make schools safer.
Texas veterinary board uploads missing records after investigative report
The Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners has uploaded dozens of disciplinary records for veterinarians that were previously not showing up on the agency’s public lookup tool.
Earlier this year, KXAN investigators discovered dozens of public records were missing from the tool that is intended to help Texans search for their animal doctors’ disciplinary history.
At the time, an attorney for the agency explained the agency was undergoing a ‘data-migration,’ moving over records to a new software system. He noted that many records were being uploaded manually, so people would need to get disciplinary records by filing a formal public information request with the agency.
By March, the attorney said all the records had been uploaded to the public tool, but KXAN found more than 60 records were still missing. The agency denied multiple requests for on-camera interviews about the issue. Just days before the story was published in May, two top officials at the agency resigned.
The newly appointed Interim Executive Director, Mike Tacker, said he would look into the status of these records. This week he reported that the issue had been “rectified.”
KXAN checked on Thursday and found as many as 55 disciplinary documents had been added for licensees on the public search tool. We have asked the agency about a few outstanding documents.
In 2017, lawmakers called on the agency to revamp its data management processes and other operations, after a review by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission the year before. The commission is scheduled to perform a “limited scope review” of the agency’s data management operations this November.
New Texas law helps families looking for missing loved ones
Alice Almendarez’s heart is heavy.
She’s prepared herself for days to face families who have dealt with similar loss.
“It’s hard to attend these events, but I do it because I know what it feels like to be in their shoes,” Almendarez explained. “My dad being missing, and you know, I felt… like he didn’t matter… he was just like vanished off the face of the earth.”
Almendarez now advocates for families with missing and unidentified loved ones.
At a recent Missing in Harris County Day in Houston, she helped families attending navigate their search for missing loved ones.
“They asked me…’What do I think the most important step is? What would I recommend for everyone,’ and I said it was NamUs, make sure your loved one is on NamUs,” Almendarez said.
In Texas now, John and Joseph’s Law requires law enforcement agencies, justices of the peace and medical examiners in the state to use NamUs, a national database to solve missing and unidentified persons cases.
The law went into effect last September.
NamUs which is short for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System was created to help investigators and families solve cases by entering forensic details into the database.
The law is named after Almendarez’s father, John, and Joseph Fritts, both from Houston, who were missing. Their families explained to KXAN investigators that NamUs helped them find closure.
“They are part of the club that they never wanted to be a part of. And they are the only ones who know what the other families like them are, are going through,” explained State Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston.
She worked closely with the Almendarez and Fritts families to get the law passed last session.
Hull joined both families at the Missing in Harris County Day and talked about the impact of the new law.
“We have seen an uptick in law enforcement agencies and medical examiners, and people are reporting more in Texas,” Hull said. “So, it is working.”
In 2020, before the law passed, 106 NamUs missing persons cases were created across the state. Last September, after the law went into effect, the cases entered more than doubled to 221 in Texas. So far this year, 191 Texas cases have been created.
For unidentified bodies in 2020, 58 cases were created in the database across the state. After the law passed, 33 cases were created. So far in 2022, 60 cases have been entered into NamUs.
Unclaimed persons cases didn’t see much of a change. Last year, 21 cases were created. So far this year, 24 cases have been entered into the database.
“This is the step that was missing. This is what’s going to help so many families and it’s also going to help you know our local authorities like solve these cases faster,” Almendarez said.
Hull has heard from those involved about some gaps in the reporting to NamUs of people who have passed but are not identified. She is looking to file additional legislation next session which starts in January.
“Part of the gap in the data for these unidentified bodies that we’re looking at is for people who have passed away from natural causes, and so they would not be investigated by law enforcement. And so, there’s a gap of them—the unidentified remains being reported,” said Hull.
NamUs is federally funded so there’s no cost to use the database.
It used to be headquartered in Fort Worth, but now it’s managed by a research institute in North Carolina.
Texas is now among 12 states to pass laws mandating the use of NamUs.
Almendarez is now pushing for it to be nationwide.
“It’s never going to work if we don’t have every law enforcement agency and medical examiner entering these cases into NamUs. It’s one uniform database, one central database that we can all use,” Almendarez explained.
She has started contacting lawmakers and is hoping to get a national movement going this year.
“I don’t ever want anyone to have to go through that longer than they have to,” Almendarez said. “The people that are missing – the faces of the missing – the moms of the missing, the dads, they’re the drive behind that and the force behind me because I don’t want them to continue to live this nightmare.”