Legislation that would penalize law enforcement agencies for failing to submit reports of a person dying in their custody got a hearing with the Texas Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee.
The bill, HB2901, would fine law enforcement agencies $1,000 a day for failing to properly submit a custodial death report. The bill mandates that the report include “all relevant facts known to the person,” and if upon investigation it is found that the report was not up to standard, then the agency can be penalized.
The fines then go to the victims of crime compensation fund.
According to KXAN, law enforcement agencies are required by Texas law to complete a custodial death report if someone dies in their custody that includes all known information and facts discovered during the investigation of the death. The report is then sent to the Attorney General.
But some lawmakers, including author of the bill Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, believe the law as it stands is not enforceable. The current penalty for incorrectly filing a custodial death report is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, but KXAN found no record of this charge ever being used in counties with the most violations.
“It is clear that the current enforcement mechanism, which has never been used, is not effective and should be changed,” Rodriguez said at the hearing.
Eva Ruth Moravec, executive director of TJI, a nonprofit that analyses and publishes a variety of criminal justice data, said that although it is “great” that Texas law requires custodial death reports, the reports aren’t effective if not filed correctly.
“Because this law doesn’t really have any teeth, as it exists right now, these reports are sometimes missing or wrong,” Moravec said at the hearing. “And there’s little to be done, as it currently exists, as a watchdog organization, to inform or to compel these reports to be fixed or filed, if they’re missing altogether.”
Moravec said that for officer-involved shootings, enforcement via notifying agencies and allowing them to submit or correct a report before assessing a fine is already the law and is effective.
However, law enforcement do not see a problem with the way things are.
Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, representing the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, told the committee he wasn’t aware of reports not being filed.
“We question here, respectfully, what exactly, where, the problem is, and how we’re going … about trying to fix it. I’m not aware of the real issue here,” Louderback said.
A KXAN investigation found that from 2015-2020, 372 reports were filed late (reports must be filed within 30 days of an in-custody death). 200 of those late reports were from prison deaths filed by the Office of Inspector General of Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The reports must include specific information from law enforcement, including autopsy results. KXAN found that 128 reports in the same 5-year-span were left pending without autopsy results.
Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who is pro-law enforcement, told the committee that he supports the bill and hopes that law enforcement will work with lawmakers to clarify the language.
“I just want to make sure that if indeed there’s a problem, which I’m hearing there is, that we can get law enforcement involved and try to rectify the problem,” Tinderholt said. “Collecting that data is important, not just for the data sake, but for the families as well. So, I’m hoping that you guys can work together and find language that works.”