On a Wednesday evening in August 2016, Vicki Timpa’s phone rang. Her ex‑husband was calling with unimaginable news: their thirty-two-year-old son, Tony, was dead. Although Tony had struggled with drugs and alcohol, anxiety, and schizophrenia, in many ways he led an enviable life. He was a white college-educated executive who made more than a quarter-million dollars a year working at a trucking logistics firm.
He had an eight-year-old son and was engaged to be married. He had been arrested and sentenced to probation for driving while intoxicated a few years prior but had never been in more serious trouble with the law. In fact, Vicki remembers that Tony grew up trusting, even idolizing, the police.
Vicki was desperate to learn what happened to her son. She called the Dallas Police Department multiple times after receiving the news, and each time she got a different story. One officer told her that Tony had had a heart attack while sitting in a bar. Another told her that he had been found dead, lying next to his car. A third told her he had called 911 and had been put in an ambulance without incident. None of these conflicting accounts explained why, when Vicki visited her son in the morgue, he had bruises on his arms and grass and dirt in his nose.
Two weeks after Tony’s death, with no information from the City of Dallas, Vicki filed a public records request that contained a simple plea: “I want to know what happened.” A reporter at The Dallas Morning News tracked down the Dallas police incident report. It said only, “Sudden Death. Complainant died by unknown means.” But then the reporter uncovered a mandated report by the police department to the Texas attorney general’s office that revealed a startling piece of information: Tony had been in handcuffs when he died. That report divulged another crucial fact: three of the Dallas police officers on the scene at the time of Tony’s death had been wearing body cameras.
The Dallas Police Department refused to give Henley the body camera videos or any other evidence they had about the circumstances of Tony’s death. They would not even disclose the names of the Dallas police officers who had been on the scene. None of this came as a surprise to Vicki’s lawyer. Texas law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold records if “release of the information would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a crime.” Vicki’s lawyer had come up against this same brick wall with Texas law enforcement agencies before. And he knew their refusals were going to make bringing Vicki’s lawsuit much harder.
Once a person decides to sue and finds a lawyer, the first step is to file a complaint with the court. A complaint is a document that explains what happened, and why those facts amount to a constitutional violation. Vicki knew that Timpa had died in the custody of Dallas police officers and that he was in handcuffs when he died. But that might not be enough: a judge could dismiss Vicki’s case because she could not say how Tony died, even though the Dallas police officials she was aiming to sue were withholding that information from her. Chapter 3 of SHIELDED explains why, in our legal system, it is exceedingly difficult to seek justice when you don’t know what exact injustice occurred.