Mission Impossible: Getting Answers from the Texas DPS

A Texas DPS training session near McAllen
Alex Landeen
A Texas DPS training session near McAllen

While reporting my 8,000-word feature on the Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter shooting of two undocumented men over the last year, I tried repeatedly to obtain documents from the Texas DPS by using the Texas Public Information Act. I wanted to better understand the agency’s dramatic transformation in the last decade into a militarized police force, especially when it comes to its border security programs.

I was met with resistance at every turn by the agency, even when it came to documents that I knew had already been released to other news outlets.

In September 2014, I filed a public information request with DPS seeking documents, such as contracts and memos, on a Virginia-based contractor called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The private company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the sweeping Texas border security plan.

In January, the Texas attorney general issued an opinion that DPS didn’t have to release much of the information, citing homeland security concerns, among other reasons. But DPS had already agreed to release documents that it considered to be public information. In October, I paid a $221 deposit to DPS. For months I have written and phoned Molly Cost, the DPS lawyer in charge of the agency’s public information requests, but have never received a response.

Other media outlets have had problems getting even basic information from DPS.

The Houston Chronicle recently reported that DPS refuses to release border crime data. Even the Texas Attorney General’s office can’t get a response from Cost at DPS, despite numerous attempts to reach her, the Chronicle wrote. What kind of state agency won’t even talk to the state’s top lawyer?

In 2012, Jeremy Schwartz at the Austin American-Statesman published an important investigative piece about ALIS, pointing out that the company had received at least $20 million in no-bid contracts for everything from drafting border security talking points for then-Gov. Rick Perry to helping DPS set up joint intelligence centers and military-style commands across the state.

After these revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

Yesterday, the liberal group Progress Texas made the important point that the ALIS contracts have been all but forgotten, even as Gov. Greg Abbott and the Legislature are considering an increase in border funding of as much as $815 million.

Now would be the time for the Public Integrity Unit to reopen its investigation into the ALIS contracts and help shine some light on DPS, said Progress Texas.

“The human cost and lack of transparency surrounding DPS operations at the U.S.-Mexico border underscores why we must scrutinize third-party contractors training DPS and other state employees in border security,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas.

One thing I wanted to figure out during my investigation was who crafted the policy authorizing DPS personnel to fire from helicopters during pursuits. No other law enforcement agency in the country would entertain such a policy, because it’s so clearly reckless. “What if you hit the driver? Then you’ve got an unguided missile on your hands,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of at the University of South Carolina and a national expert in police pursuits, told me. “What they were doing was totally crazy.”

But without DPS providing even basic information, there’s no way of knowing who was responsible for that deadly policy.

Listen to Melissa del Bosque discuss her story, Death on Sevenmile Road, on Texas Standard.

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 10:44 am CST