“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness …”
— Charles Dickens, from A Tale of Two Cities
With apologies to the great Victorian author, one can’t help but feel that North Texas is living through a modern retelling of Dickens’ classic about the French Revolution, this time involving the cities of Denton and Fort Worth. In one setting, the action takes place against a background of light and transparency; in the other, critical events are shielded in darkness and secrecy.
We, of course, are talking about the stark differences in how two entities, the Denton County Sheriff’s Office (headquartered in Denton) and the Fort Worth Police Department, have handled recent officer-involved shootings.
In the most recent incident, over the weekend in Fort Worth, a police officer dispatched to a home on a wellness check ended up shooting and killing the home’s resident after she appeared in a window, alerted to the officer’s flashlight and rustling in her backyard.
The officer’s actions were widely and rapidly condemned, with him out of a job and jailed on murder charges within 72 hours of the shooting. What galvanized the groundswell of national response was the police department’s decision to release within 24 hours of the shooting almost two minutes from the officer’s body camera. The footage showed the officer canvassing the backyard before being drawn to a window, shortly followed by screams of “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” and a gunshot.
Empowered through the firsthand, unblinking account, the family of the woman slain and the wider community were able to direct their voices toward the obvious injustice and very quickly effect change. A statement accompanying the video’s release said: “The Fort Worth Police Department is releasing available body camera footage to provide transparent and relevant information to the public as we are allowed within the confines of the Public Information Act and forthcoming investigation.”
Contrast the Fort Worth Police Department’s response with that of the Denton County Sheriff’s Office to two deputy-involved fatal shootings over the past six months. In both incidents, the first in June in Lantana and the second last month in Sanger, requests that the bodycam footage be released have been rebuffed, with most of the details of the shootings, such as the names of the deputies involved or the number of gunshots or wounds involved, kept under wraps.
Ironically, the sheriff’s office has claimed in its refusal to release the records surrounding the shootings exemptions to the very Public Information Act under which Fort Worth released its bodycam footage. Initially, the sheriff’s office cited ongoing investigations, not unlike Fort Worth’s “forthcoming investigation,” but Sheriff Tracy Murphree hinted at additional motives in an Oct. 3 Facebook post: “I won’t investigate a case in the media and I won’t put my Deputies in danger by giving their name to a paper.”
Truth is, the Texas Public Information Act and law enforcement body cameras share a joint purpose in their existence: They were created to reassure the public by providing illuminating information regarding the operation of key public agencies. Both exist to provide a window into critical decision-making and actions, not slam the door on public access.
And while it would be easy to believe that only the Denton Record-Chronicle is concerned with the release of the records in the deputy-involved shootings — since we have been the most vocal in their pursuit — family and friends of the men slain also have been denied closure in their deaths, as has a community deserving of reassurance anytime a life is taken.
This is a sentiment the newspaper has championed in its pursuit of the records’ release — the Public Information Act declares the records to be public, so the public should be granted access. It is also a sentiment now shared in letters mailed this week to the Denton County District Attorney’s Office and Texas Attorney General’s Office by an attorney representing the newspaper in its pursuit. “The Denton County Sheriff’s Office appears to have a policy of refusing to comply with the obligations imposed by the Texas Public Information Act,” states the letter addressed to the Attorney General’s Office.
With this modern Tale of Two Cities now entering its pinnacle chapter, we remain hopeful for an illuminating conclusion. It’s not too late for Sheriff Murphree to author such an outcome in following Fort Worth’s example.