Monday, December 1, 2014

Texas Attorney General Rules Against Our Open Records Request

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 1:15 PM

click image Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled we couldn't know what the San Antonio Police Department uses the Department of Homeland Security Grant Program for, even though City Council has to approve how the funds are used through a public vote. - DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled we couldn't know what the San Antonio Police Department uses the Department of Homeland Security Grant Program for, even though City Council has to approve how the funds are used through a public vote.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and heir to the Lone Star State's governorship, recently ruled against an open records request we filed.

After a black man named Michael Brown was killed earlier this year by a white cop named Darren Wilson, we watched and listened, like most of the nation, as Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into protests against the police.

During the ensuing months, many conversations about race and policing became prevalent on TV screens and in news publications. 

One topic repeatedly visited by pundits and at coffee tables around the country was the militarization of police. With images of police in body armor pointing high-powered weapons at unarmed civilians, everyone began talking about the 1033 military surplus program, which allows local police departments to acquire surplus military equipment.

And so, in the spirit of finding out whether our local law enforcement agencies were using the program to acquire weapons, we filed a slew of open record requests.

The military surplus request was an easy one, because finding out which law enforcement agencies in Bexar County applied and received equipment through the 1033 program just required an open records request with the Department of Public Safety, Texas' administering agency for the federal program.

The request that was denied involves lesser known programs, namely the Department of Homeland Security Grant Program, which is comprised of the State Homeland Security Program, the Urban Areas Security Initiative program and Operation Stonegarden. 

For Ficsal Year 2014, the State Homeland Security Program has more than $401 million set out for allotment. This grant aims to support "the implementation of risk driven, capabilities-based State Homeland Security Strategies to address capability targets set in Urban Area, State, and regional Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments," according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) fact sheet.

Here's the breakdown for the Urban Areas Security Initiative, for which nearly $600 million of your federal tax dollars were allotted for: "The UASI program funds addressed the unique risk driven and capabilities-based planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density Urban Areas based on the capability targets identified during the THIRA process and associated assessment efforts; and assists them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism."

And finally, Operation Stonegarden, which has $55 million in funding set aside for Fiscal Year 2014, is " intended to enhance cooperation and coordination among local, tribal, territorial, state, and Federal law enforcement agencies in a joint mission to secure the United States’ borders along routes of ingress from international borders to include travel corridors in States bordering Mexico and Canada, as well as states and territories with international water borders."

So we filed an open record request with the City of San Antonio in an attempt to find out if the police department filed applications to the DHS Homeland Security Program—whether those applications were accepted, denied or accepted in part.

Well, the AG's office ruled that because of San Antonio's proximity to the border, which was San Antonio's argument against releasing the information to us (cartels, drug and human traffickers), the Alamo City doesn't have to release the requested information because "the information at issue relates to an assessment of the risk or vulnerability of persons or property, including critical infrastructure, to an act of terrorism or related criminal activity," Assistant Attorney General Kristi L. Godden wrote.

Despite the ruling, the City Council must approve use of funds from the State Homeland Security Program grant, and they need eight or more council members to vote in favor of the use of those funds. And on Thursday, City Council will do just that.

City Council will vote on whether to allot $267,768 from the State Homeland Security Program grant fund to purchase an airborne color/infrared imaging camera from the Ontario-based Wescam, Inc.

The camera will be used "to conduct searches for missing persons, suspects, evidence and equipment," which hardly seems related to the cartel threat cited in San Antonio's request for an AG opinion as a reason not to comply with the open record request and more like something you might see an officer discussing on the popular TV show "COPS." 

According to the proposed ordinance, the funding will come from the Fiscal Year 2013 State Homeland Security Program grant fund, though a search of FEMA Fiscal Year 2013 allocations didn't list San Antonio. The Alamo City is listed in Fiscal Year 2014 allocations, for a sum of $1 million. 

So it seems strange that the AG would deny this particular open record request from a print publication (and that the City was opposed to releasing the info) even though City Council must cast a public vote on the use of the funds from these grants.

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