Texas' attorney general asked to order release of police reports

TEXAS -- An attorney for the student editor at Brookhaven College asked Texas' attorney general Wednesday to order the immediate and complete release of campus police incident reports that were withheld from the student newspaper for several weeks, then belatedly released in incomplete form.

Brookhaven Courier Editor-in-Chief Kristin McKenzie said she requested records August 3 relating to three incidents at the two-year public college in Farmers Branch, Texas. Two of the events involved indecent exposure and another involved the assault of a librarian on campus.

McKenzie initially sought the records from the Brookhaven campus police department but was referred to the Robert Young, the legal counsel for Brookhaven. She said Young has been making it difficult for her to do her job because he has been upholding the school's position in redacting some of the information from public records.

Before releasing any records, a paralegal in Young's office called McKenzie to ask for written permission to redact all names and witness accounts from one of the records. McKenzie said she refused to comply.

McKenzie said she found it "odd" that she was asked for permission to redact information.

A week after making the initial records request, McKenzie received one of the incident reports she had requested and said it contained all the necessary information. The district refused to release the other two, however.

The school, in defense of its position, claimed exemptions to the Texas Public Information Act in its letter to the attorney general. The district legal office alleged that the information was exempt from disclosure because, among other reasons, the indecent exposure incidents were "sex-related offenses," and the aggravated assault was an open investigation.

After asking Young's office to cite specific language in the Texas Public Information Act prohibiting the release of the requested information, McKenzie received a letter stating that the district had submitted the request for review by the Texas attorney general for an opinion on whether or not the records are considered public. Twelve days later, she received the remaining two records, both of which were heavily redacted and, according to her, were missing essential information.

Under Texas law, the attorney general has 45 days to respond to the district's request for an opinion, but in some circumstances that period can be extended, said Jim Hemphill of the Graves, Dougherty, Hearon and Moody law firm, a volunteer attorney working with McKenzie.

Hemphill sent a letter Wednesday to the Texas attorney general, listing four main complaints with Brookhaven's handling of the situation, and asking for a response to help establish precedent to prevent events like this occurring in the future.

The way the school handled McKenzie's request was not in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act because the college took too long to respond to her request, Hemphill said. He said the college further breached the act by requiring McKenzie to sign an "indemnification and hold harmless agreement," making her liable for any damages caused by the release of the information.

"I have not seen this indemnification and hold harmless agreement which they required McKenzie to sign before," Hemphill said. "It's absolutely contrary to the Public Information Act."

Additionally, the college failed to provide McKenzie with a copy of the letter they sent to the attorney general, and it claimed exemptions to the Public Information Act which were overly broad, Hemphill said.

"I'm not speculating on their motive," Hemphill said. "Apparently, though, they made a conscious decision they don't want the public to see this information that has been redacted."

McKenzie said she does not understand why the situation has escalated to this point.

"It just makes them look bad," McKenzie said. "It does make me wonder if there is something they don't want me to see in this [report]."

After multiple attempts at contact, no comment was given by the Brookhaven legal counsel's office at the time of publication.

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