City sues over Owens Photos

Suit filed to stop release of crime-scene pictures in police-shooting case

The city of Austin filed suit in district court on May 10 in an attempt to block public release of autopsy and crime-scene photos taken in connection with the June 2003 officer-involved shooting of Jessie Lee Owens. The lawsuit was filed in response to an open-records request made by the Chronicle (and a subsequent request made by the Statesman and another local media outlet) seeking records of the Austin Police Department's Internal Affairs investigation into Owens' shooting by Officer Scott Glasgow.

The city released most of the documents we asked for, but also appealed to the Texas Attorney General's office, asserting that the photos, as well as several documents related to cadet training courses at the APD police academy, were exempt from disclosure under the state's Public Information Act. Specifically, the city claimed that release of the photos would violate Owens' family's privacy rights, and that releasing certain documents related to APD training classes would hamper future policing efforts, Assistant City Attorney Brad Norton wrote in an e-mail to the Chronicle.

On April 28, the AG weighed in, disagreeing with the city's legal position and opining that state law required that the city release both the photos and the training documents. The deceased have no right to privacy, Assistant Attorney General Denis C. McElroy wrote. And while surviving family members may indeed have a legitimate "privacy interest" that could prevent release of the photos, in this case the challenge failed to pass the second part of the two-pronged test – that the materials contain "highly intimate" or "embarrassing" facts and are of no "legitimate concern" to the public – necessary for an exemption. "[W]hile we agree that [the photos] arguably contain highly intimate facts, the publication of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, this information pertains to the shooting death of an individual by a police officer," McElroy wrote. "Such information is of immense legitimate public interest."

And in the case of the APD training documents (which, presumably, include an academy lesson plan on high-risk traffic stops), McElroy wrote that the city had failed to explain how or why the documents' release would hamper future policing activities. "[Y]ou have failed to explain how the remaining information at issue differs from procedures and techniques that are commonly known," he wrote, "and have failed to meet your burden of explaining how and why release of this information would interfere with law enforcement and crime prevention. Therefore, none of the remaining information may be withheld."

In the wake of the AG's April 27 decision, the city made available certain additional documents, including academy lesson plans on handcuffing techniques and two re-enactment videos in which Glasgow demonstrates (in one, emotionally) what led up to the Owens shooting. Public interest aside, the city has decided it will fight release of the photos, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking release of photos taken in connection with the 1993 suicide of White House Counsel Vincent Foster, and the remaining training materials. "It appears to the City that the interests of [Owens'] relatives ... are protected in this case by the doctrine of common law privacy," Norton wrote in his May 10 e-mail. And in the case of the training materials, he wrote that the city will fight their release on the basis that "the materials would equip criminals to defeat law enforcement efforts, and so would 'interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution,'" of future crimes.

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Police Shootings, Austin Police Department, APD, Jessie Lee Owens, Brad Norton, Attorney General, Public Information Act, Denis C. McElroy, Scott Glasgow

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