Texas law could keep Uvalde police details secret

A police SUV passes by a memorial in honor of the 21 victims of a mass shooting at Robb Element ...

DALLAS — In the days since an 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself inside an elementary school classroom in Uvalde and fatally shot 19 students and two teachers, the police’s narrative of the events leading up to and during the massacre has shifted by the day.

As more shocking details are revealed about police action — and inaction — during the slaying, the Uvalde community has been desperate for answers.

Journalists and lawmakers have called for the release of 911 calls, body-camera footage and other evidence to determine what happened May 24, but Texas open-records laws may prevent the public from ever seeing important evidence.

Here’s how what is referred to as the “dead suspect loophole” might affect what we know about Uvalde:

What is the dead suspect loophole?

Under the Texas Public Information Act, governmental bodies are required to make records “about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees” available to the public.

There are several exceptions to what is considered public information, however, including what has been referred to as the dead suspect loophole.

Under state law, law-enforcement records that deal with an investigation that doesn’t result in a conviction don’t have to be made public. That includes when a person dies during an interaction with law enforcement.

How might the loophole apply to Uvalde?

Salvador Ramos spent more than an hour inside Robb Elementary School before he was killed by law enforcement.

Initially, officials said Ramos was confronted by a school security officer, which ended up being untrue. It was then revealed that officers were waiting inside the school while children and teachers called 911 and pleaded for help.

Reports that Ramos walked into the building through a propped open door later turned out to be unfounded. On Friday, authorities said school district police Chief Pete Arredondo — who led the response that day — didn’t have his radio with him.

While 911 tapes, communications between law-enforcement agencies and other evidence would likely be crucial in piecing together an accurate picture of what happened that day, it’s possible those records will not be made public because Ramos was killed by police.

The decision on whether or not to publicize the records around the massacre will be up to law enforcement.

Lawmakers call for action

State officials have tried to address the dead suspect loophole in past legislative sessions.

State Rep. Dade Phelan, a Republican representing District 21 in southeast Texas, is among lawmakers in recent days who have called for the Texas Legislature to address the loophole.

In a series of tweets, Phelan said it would be “absolutely unconscionable” to allow the loophole to affect the knowledge that victims’ families have of what happened during the shooting.

“Families of those who die in custody never get closure or access to details of their loved one’s death because of this loophole. This is an area in dire need of reform,” he wrote.

Phelan, who is speaker of the Texas House, announced Friday that the House would be investigating the events at the elementary school. He said a committee will examine evidence from law enforcement and release findings “as soon as possible to help inform the work of the House.”