Thursday, April 28, 2005

New tools may prevent hiring gypsy cops

Regular readers know a lot about "gypsy cops," which I've previously defined as "a peace officer who floats from department to department regardless of, or because of, misconduct or poor job performance." The Texas House today will consider on second reading HB 2677 by House Law Enforcement Committee Chairman Joe Driver, R-Garland, designed to prevent "gypsy cop" scenarios where an officer leaves a law enforcement job because of misconduct, then pops up a few miles down the road working for another little po-dunk department.

The most famous Texas "gypsy cop" was Tom Coleman, the one-time "law enforcement officer of the year" from the infamous Tulia drug stings, who was convicted of perjury in January. But there are plenty of other examples.

HB 2677, and its companion SB 1303 by Seliger, would alter the termination form filed with the state licensing agency to create a new category designating officers who were not fired, but who also were not honorably discharged - e.g., they left while an investigation was underway against them rather than face the consequences of their actions. It's not enough to notify the agency when they've been convicted, which is what happens now. Police officers are almost never even indicted for any but the most severe misconduct, and then only where evidence is over-the-top obvious, so in nearly all instances the investigation is merely dropped when the officer resigns.

In addition to gathering this information, the bill also requires departments to request the form in question (the bureaucratic name is an F-5 form), before hiring a new officer. In discussions last fall before the bill was filed, it became apparent that many chiefs and sheriffs were too lazy to do even a minimalist background check on new officers, much less to ask with the licensing agency for anything. This legislation will require them to check.

Four years ago I worked on a bill altering the same section of the code, SB 1583 by Van de Putte/Hinojosa, which made the termination notice public in cases where officers were fired for "excessive force or violations of the law." Before that new law, nobody except cops and the state had even seen the F-5 form, though its contents were laid out in the statute, so it wasn't until the first forms became available under the Public Information Act that it became apparent (to anybody outside law enforcement) how inadequate and useless they were currently.

This bill would give police chiefs, sheriffs, and supervisors information to identify bad cops BEFORE they get on the force, if they use it. That's a much needed change. It might have been stronger, though, if the form had just been made a public record -- that way, the media and the public could hold departments accountable for poor hiring practices, and there would be more incentive to perform due diligence and make sure they could justify new hires. If right now smaller departments just don't perform background checks, many may not respond to the new designation by following up and asking more questions. This is a great start, though, and will give police supervisors an important new tool to protect their departments from bad influences, if they care to.

Kudos to the Texas Municipal Police Association, which conceived the legislation and worked it through the process. At ACLU, we butt heads with those guys a lot, but this is a really good bill.


Patrick Timmons said...

Why would you use an ethnic identity as a pejorative term to describe a despicable practice, Scott?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's not my term. It's law enforcement slang popularized after the Tulia case. I'll admit, I'd never thought of it that way, though.