Lack of police transparency in Rice arrest angers lawmaker

A veteran state lawmaker said Monday he is outraged by televised images of Rice University police officers striking a suspected bicycle thief with batons and appalled the university can refuse to release details because it is a private institution.

"We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. "Does stuff like this happen every day and they're able to withhold it?"

Whitmire saw portions of a video, shot during an August arrest, when the excerpt was televised last week by KPRC-TV. The Houston Chronicle also has seen only the televised excerpt.

Whitmire said the Texas Rangers are investigating the university's police department at his request and said he intends to seek to strengthen open records laws for more transparency.

The legislator said the Harris County District Attorney's Office also is investigating. The district attorney's office refused to confirm or deny an investigation, and representatives for the Rangers could not be reached Monday.

The Rice police agency is under fire after officers hit 37-year-old Ivan Waller with batons while arresting him for stealing a "bait bike" that officers put out as part of a sting. Rice officials said in a statement that an internal review concluded the force was justified, but they did not release the full video or other information related to the arrest.

Texas law requires any government institution to release public information, such as salaries, mug shots of criminal suspects and personnel files. Because Rice is a private university, the police department is not required  to release information such as the arrest video.

"Of course it was a beating," said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "If (Rice administrators) don't have zero tolerance for what I saw with my own eyes, I will deal with them in Austin." He said he wants the officers seen in the video fired.

Rice spokesman David Ruth declined to answer questions about the incident or the resulting fallout, citing the district attorney's investigation.

Community activist Quanell X said a Rice police officer approached him in August and showed him about 90 seconds of a seven-minute video of officers hitting Waller with batons. The video was shot with a dashboard camera in a patrol car.

Waller had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft in exchange for a 15-day sentence in the Harris County Jail. He disappeared after being released but was located and taken to the district attorney's office, where he swore out a complaint to initiate an investigation, Quanell X said. The activist said Waller's back and legs were bruised, but that he was not hit in the face or head.

The arrest came after Rice police set up a "bait bike" with a GPS tracking device. About 11 p.m. on Aug. 10, officers were alerted that the bicycle had been taken off campus and found Waller with the bike at Montclair and Holcombe, according to the university statement.

Waller would not respond to verbal commands, so officers forced him to the ground and handcuffed his left wrist. Waller refused to be handcuffed by putting his right hand under his body, according to the university.

"After repeated attempts to gain control of the suspect with verbal commands and physical control techniques were unsuccessful, two officers deployed their batons and struck the suspect's legs," the statement reads. "The officers are trained to strike the legs in an effort to subdue a resistant suspect without causing serious bodily harm."

The officers put a second set of handcuffs on Waller's right wrist and locked the two sets together, according to the statement.

According to its website, the department employs about 30 police officers.

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