On August 1, Councilman Adam Bazaldua made reference to Police Chief U. Reneé Hall’s ongoing participation in police activity. Bazaldua was calling for state troopers to exit his South Dallas council district. He said the chief had been “responsive and on top of the situation.” At that point, she’d been out on medical leave since the week of July 15.
That little admission—Bazaldua hasn’t spoken publicly about it since—made us and others wonder about Hall’s involvement during her time away. On August 2, I filed a couple of open records requests asking, separately, for her text messages and emails beginning on July 8. D Magazine was not interested in publishing her messages without discretion, but we felt it was important to glimpse the goings-on of one of the city’s most important leaders during a time she was out of the office (Hall returned on August 26). This was particularly important given the scant details surrounding her absence—a silence that continues to today—as well as the crucial period in which Dallas PD finds itself. Violent crime is at a peak not seen for more than a decade. A recent audit found DPD needs to rethink the way it deploys resources.
Over the course of the next six weeks, my requests hit a series of roadblocks, each one more confounding than the last. At one point, I was issued an invoice for 522 pages of text messages at an estimated cost of $97.20. I was later told a mistake had been made, that Chief Hall hadn’t sent a single text during the time frame of my request. Instead, I was told, the 522 pages were actually emails. But when the invoice came for Hall’s inbox, DPD made just 16 pages of emails available, saying Hall’s office itself cut down the total.
If the city indeed shaved 506 emails from the batch, its actions illegally skip a crucial step in the open records process. To claim emails are exempt from disclosure, public entities have to cite specific pieces of the state’s open records law—and then throw the documents to Texas’ Office of the Attorney General for a ruling. DPD says it took on that role on its own.
That’s the short version of events. The longer version contains more bizarre turns.
Let’s first talk about what happened on September 1, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It had been just six business days since that invoice for $97.20, and I’d already called the open records unit twice to ask why I didn’t have an option to pay the invoice. The clerk told me that I only needed send a message through the open records portal accepting the charge, and I’d done just that on August 23. The clerk confirmed she saw the acceptance. But on that Sunday, a message dinged in my email at 6:45 p.m.:
In regards to the Police Records Request received on 8/2/2019 requesting records, the records have been in “Waiting for Acceptance of Charges” status for 10 business days. The [sic] considers this request closed. If you would still like the records, please submit another Police Records Request.
Huh? Reporters know all too well the lengths some public entities go to keep secrets, using everything from delay tactics to feigning incompetence in an effort to get reporters to shrug and walk away—or for the news cycle to pass up the story during the time it takes to track down the records.
It had been 10 regular days since my request, but never in my years of reporting had I received an automatic message confused about business days versus total days, and I can’t remember a time I’d received a message about an open records request on a Sunday, either, let alone the Sunday of a holiday weekend. And then there was the fact that I’d accepted the charges. What was going on here?
By end of day Tuesday, I’d gotten in touch—through DPD’s public information office—with Open Records Unit Supervisor Barbara Keggins, who reopened the request. Keggins looked into it and we played phone tag for a couple of days, and then, on September 5, we spoke on the phone.
She provided a version of events. She said that on August 12, the Communication Information Services (CIS) Department—which goes into the system and pulls the electronic correspondence—sent over documents responsive to my request for emails. On August 19, they sent documents responsive to my request for text messages. But only after Keggins began to investigate, she said, had anyone realized these two stacks of documents were exactly the same. CIS sent the same 522 pages of emails twice, according to Keggins.
In reality, her version went, Hall had not sent a single text from July 8 through August 2. I asked if that would hold up if I talked to everyone in Hall’s web. “I’m not going to say one way or another on that because I don’t know,” Keggins said. “The only thing I can tell you is that I reached out to our team that would pull that information and they sent back to me in writing that there were no text messages.” (Bazaldua did not respond to emails asking about how he corresponded with Hall, but if you are a public official or city staffer or someone else with knowledge of Hall’s text or email activity during this time, please get in touch at [email protected].)
And what about the weird cancellation on Labor Day Sunday?
“I cannot honestly tell you if it was a glitch in the system or an oversight on our part,” she said. “Because, like I said, I had no contact with your particular request until the other day.”
Keggins said that after we hung up, she would close the text message request. She said that the request for emails—this whole time, I’d received no official communication on that piece, save a small line denoting that it was currently with the City Attorney’s office—was nearing a conclusion. “I’m assuming that you’ll probably be hearing something from us on that either today or tomorrow,” she said. I figured that if there had truly been a mixup, the proof would be in how many emails showed up. It’s hard to fake 522 pages.
Later that day, the open records unit officially closed my request for Hall’s text messages. As it turned out, there was nothing responsive after all, said the message in the portal.
They also sent an invoice for the emails: $1.60. Just 16 pages.
Keggins would no longer take my calls. But in a message through the portal, she said that Chief Hall’s staff determined which of the emails “were responsive” to my request, cutting down the batch from 522 pages to 16 pages. I pointed out that everything was responsive—I’d only asked for emails within a timeframe—and asked what criteria were used to make the cuts. At that point, Keggins refused to answer my questions altogether.
I messaged Hall next. I asked whether she texted between July 8 and August 2, and about the criteria her office used to weed out 506 pages of emails.
The response came from DPD’s Public Information Office on September 16. We’ll take it piece by piece, with my comments in bold.
• Computer Information Services (CIS) conducted two inquiries for Chief Hall’s emails related to your request, Mr. Shinneman. CIS mistakenly pulled Chief Hall’s emails from January 2019 to August 2, 2019 and provided the Dallas Police Department’s (DPD) Record Unit with the email batch. [We’re already at odds with Keggins’ explanation.] When the DPD Records Unit informed CIS of the error, [Is the “error” here referring to the date range? Because not even Keggins—who herself had investigated all this well after the fact—had discovered anything wrong with the date range of CIS’ query, only that CIS pulled emails when they should’ve pulled texts. Now we’re introduced to a brand new narrative in which the records unit caught a CIS error only for, as you’ll see in the second half of this sentence, CIS to err again.] CIS did not run another inquiry, but provided an email batch from a City Hall request made by you, using similar criteria. That resulted in the 522 pages of emails. [Oh.]
• DPD’s Records Unit inadvertently invoiced you for 16 pages of text messages when none existed. [I was never invoiced for 16 pages of text messages. I was invoiced for 522 pages of text messages.] CIS mistakenly associated the email batch to the request for text messages that resulted in the wrong invoice forwarded to you. DPD’s Records Unit also communicated to you that the email batch was 522 pages, and you believed that all of the information was responsive, when in fact some was not. [Again, this explanation seems to be based on the incorrect premise that I was invoiced for 16 pages of texts rather than 522 pages.] Your criteria was fairly specific, for emails sent by Chief Hall for a specified time frame (July 8 – date request is fulfilled). However, under the Act, a governmental entity is not required to produce any information not in existence at the time of the request. Your specified criteria and limited time frame reduced the information responsive to your request. [It’s true that I phrased my request this way. But by the time the first invoice appeared, DPD had already narrowed the timeframe to July 8 through August 2 (the day I put in the request).]
• Regarding DPD’s procedures related to emails, the custodian or designee of the emails reviews the email batch to determine if any of the emails are: (1) responsive information based on the request’s criteria, (2) need exemption, or (3) confidential.
This final bullet point brings us back to the bigger picture.
From what I understand after talking to someone who knows how Dallas processes open records: the city essentially had two options when my requests came in. It could’ve made the argument outright that my request was not specific enough. This is something Dallas does when requests come in for all emails during a given date range—they want the request narrowed to a certain subject matter. The Attorney General has sided with cities in this respect, but in this situation, the case to withhold would’ve been a shaky one. We’re taking about less than a single month of emails, for one. Second, there’s a specific reason the public should get a look, and reason for this specific date range.
But anyway, the city didn’t ask for a narrowed request. So the other option was this: it could’ve taken all the emails it didn’t want to hand over, the ones it said were confidential or exempt from disclosure under Texas law, and it could’ve filed an appeal to the Office of the Attorney General. The AG would’ve had 45 days to agree or disagree with the choices. Certainly, it would’ve found common ground on some points. This is the police chief. There are open investigations and other sensitive items of discussion. There are some things we shouldn’t see.
Instead, we are told, Chief Hall’s office cut out 506 pages of emails at its own discretion.
“All emails are not particular business emails,” Keggins said on the phone. “Some people just email to be emailing.”
Of course. But if you’re the chief of police, even your emails for email sake—so long as they’re sent from your city account—are public record. Unless you can make a case otherwise, and the AG agrees.