The Houston Chronicle reports on a continuing story that just keeps getting more interesting. Back in August, the Rice University Police Department arrested an individual named Ivan Waller on suspicion of theft. Shortly thereafter, video shows officers beating him repeatedly and mercilessly with batons. Waller was unarmed and screamed out “Why [are] y’all beating me?”
The incident did not come to light until about a week ago, following the publication of a video of the incident by KPRC. The tv station noted that the university was not cooperative in the slightest, refusing to comment or any way assist with the story. In fact, Rice noted that since its police department was a “private institution,” it was not obligated to cooperated. Please note that the incident in question occurred outside of Rice’s property/campus.
As the Chronicle article notes, this angered a powerful state lawmaker, John Whitmire, the Dean of the Senate and its Criminal Justice Committee chairman. Whitmire has asked both the Harris County DA’s office and the Texas Rangers to look into the matter, and has announced he will attempt to right this odious wrongs in the next legislative session.
“Of course it was a beating. If they don’t have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin,” Whitmire said. They way he specifically intends to deal with such actions is to propose changing the law to require private universities’ police forces may be subject to the same level of public inspection and transparency as public departments, such as HPD.
Specifically at issue here is that Rice refuses to hand over the entire video of the suspect’s arrest. The portion showing his merciless beating, KPRC notes, is only a fraction of the entire episode. Additionally, Rice may enjoin the Sheriff’s department from releasing the suspect’s mug shot. This is important because the extent of his beating (e.g., if he has a bloody nose or a black eye) will become readily apparent from a photograph taken soon thereafter. Public departments may not do either of these things. Whitmire also wants to change the law to require the Texas Rangers are required to investigate controversies with similar circumstances (allegations of impropriety against private departments).
“Quite frankly it’s not just the Rice police department, there are other special police departments across the state. They are carrying out the laws of the state of Texas, they ought to be subject to open records and open information,” Whitmire said.
Whitemire has a history of leading the charge on issues near-and-dear to him, and while I have disagreed with him in the past on the relevance of those issues to his office, I certainly do not disagree here. The State is absolutely the institution best suited to make sure miscarriages of justice, such as this one, do not occur again. Private police departments need to be accountable; good for Dean Whitmire for fighting to that effect. I look forward to his proposals in the 84th Legislature.