Dallas PD Asks Attorney General For Permission To Withhold 'Embarrassing' Documents About Its Bomb Robot
from the or-are-the-records-'highly-intimate?' dept
The unprecedented deployment of a bomb-defusing robot by Dallas police to kill an armed suspect raised several questions. While these robots have sometimes acted as part of a negotiation team in the past, no police department had previously rigged one up with an explosive device to take a suspect out.
One question that remains unanswered is whether this use of the Dallas PD's robot violated its own policies. Gawker's Andy Cush filed a public records request for PD policies on using robots to kill and discovered Dallas law enforcement was basically making things up as it went along.
Gawker filed a request with the department under the Texas Public Information Act seeking any departmental doctrine for using a bomb-carrying robot against a suspect, including but not limited to the use of the Remotec model. Last week, the department responded via email that “A search was made within the Dallas Police Department by the respective Divisions(s) for this information and no records were found.” (Emphasis theirs.)
Debra Webb, a public information officer with the DPD, told Gawker that based on the verbiage of the response, it is safe to assume that no records outlining departmental doctrine for the use of bomb-carrying robots against suspects exist. The apparent lack of any written plans would seem to confirm that officers on the ground came up with the killer robot strategy on the fly, as several experts suggested to the Intercept several days after the shootings.
Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox of Motherboard are seeking more answers about this incident -- one that could be used as a blueprint (albeit one without its own policy blueprint) for similar situations faced by other law enforcement agencies.
The Dallas PD does have several records pertaining to the incident but it's not interested in releasing them.
I formally asked the Dallas police department for body camera footage taken by police and onboard footage taken by the robot of the operation. Motherboard reporter Joseph Cox asked for communications that took place in the aftermath of the event, as well as documents about the purchase of the robot.
The police admitted in a response to me that it does have these videos, but told me in a letter that “all or part of the requested information may not be disclosed at this time.” The Dallas Police Department sent a separate letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking him to exempt large parts of my request and the requests of 16 other journalists from “mandatory disclosure.”
Whether Paxton will grant this blanket exception remains to be seen. But past events show he's amenable to covering up records that might be embarrassing or show local law enforcement agencies operating at less than peak efficiency. At least in this case, he won't be put in the position of representing the public and the agency suing him when the public records litigation begins.
The problem with this request for a blanket exception covering these records is that the Dallas Police has, rather disingenuously, lumped public records from 17 different journalists into one big ball of presumptive nondisclosure.
Each of these journalists has requested different things, and each of them should require a separate legal review.
For example, one journalist asked for information about the network security of the link between the police’s robot control center and the robot itself—an interesting request, but one that has both future safety implications and nothing at all to do with Motherboard’s requests.
Furthermore, as Jason Koebler points out, the Dallas PD thinks it should be allowed to withhold documents simply because it might look bad if anyone else but law enforcement officials viewed them.
The Dallas Police Department tells the attorney general that some of the information requested could be “embarrassing” and subject to redaction under a “common law privacy” act, but does not state (at least in the part of the letter it released) which part of which request it believes could result in embarrassing records being released.
Sorry, public officials, but potential embarrassment is not a legitimate reason to withhold public records. The "common law privacy" cited by the PD suggests the info would also have to be "highly intimate" and, more importantly, "of no public interest" to justify withholding under this exemption.
This preemptive move by the Dallas PD -- one that treats multiple requests seeking different documents as an indivisible whole -- appears to be its way of throwing several wrenches into the public records machinery. Koebler reports the PD is asking as many questions as it can in hopes of creating a confusing mess out of multiple straightforward information requests -- even stupid things like whether or not it can redact credit card numbers.
What it's really asking of attorney general Ken Paxton is how long it can get away with not complying with requests. Should Paxton fail to grant it the secrecy it seeks, the next move will likely be a blend of over-redaction and increased fulfillment fees.
Granted, officers on the scene were less concerned with the generation of "embarrassing " public records than they were with neutralizing a hostile threat, but once the decision had been made to repurpose a bomb disposal robot into a killing machine, those up top knew the records requests would come rolling in. Dallas PD officials may not have had any policies in place for wiring up robots to kill, but they already have plenty of strategies on hand for fending off journalists and their records requests.