Rice University Police Department is required to make all records related to law enforcement activities available to the public upon request according to Texas Senate Bill 308, as of Sept. 1, 2015. The Texas Public Information Act, which holds public institutions to these same requirements, has been in effect since Sept. 1, 1993 according to General Counsel Vice President Richard Zansitis.
“Private universities in Texas are permitted by state law to have police departments with officers commissioned under state law,” Zansitis said. “However, in the past, the attorney general of Texas ruled that since the private universities themselves were not governmental bodies, their police departments were not subject to the PIA.”
Texas Senator Rodney Ellis coauthored S.B. 308 to make the standard of openness the same for public and private institutions, Ellis said.
“I signed on as a coauthor to Senator Whitmire’s bill because transparency and accountability are important factors for any entity with policing powers,” Ellis said. “If an entity has the ability to detain and use force on the public, they should have to be transparent about how they are using their police powers.”
Now, individuals can apply to see police records related to a case, regardless of whether or not they have direct involvement in the incident, according to RUPD Chief Johnny Whitehead.
“Once we get a request, we have to look at the request and make a determination of whether or not it’s subject to open records,” Whitehead said. “Each time these come in, we’ll have to do a certain amount of research. We may have to rely on consultation from the general counsel and in some cases ask the attorney general’s office for a ruling.”
Because of these new procedures and rules, RUPD will have to do more work to do its job correctly, RUPD Captain Clemente Rodriguez said.
“There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve, [since] we’ve never been subject to open records before,” Rodriguez said. “So when the request comes in, we’re going to probably have to pay a little more attention to make sure we’re complying with the law.”
The bill has positive effects too, according to Rodriguez.
“It means that people will continue to have confidence with us,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to comply with everything that’s required. We’re doing what’s in the best interest of the community.”
Whitehead said RUPD has prepared extensively for the law.
“We’ve worked very diligently to be ready for when the law went into effect, in establishing the website, designating the [Public Information Officer], training everybody [and] making members of the campus community aware of the new law,” Whitehead said. “We’re ready.”