Sunday, March 04, 2007

House Law Enforcement Committee: Where's the love?

I've gotta tell you, I'm not feeling the love from tomorrow's House Law Enforcement committee agenda.

Though several bills are up that deserve Grits' readers' attention, I wish I had more good news to report. Only one item would I call a modestly "good bill," and even it doesn't go as far as another one I still hope the Lege will pass. The rest I think we can do without. Here are the high and lowlights:

Don't make DPS misconduct records secret
The most potentially harmful of the bills up tomorrow is one perennially promoted by the state troopers' union, HB 1422 in its current incarnation, which would close most disciplinary records of Department of Public Safety officers. This is a terrible idea. Right now records of officer misconduct at DPS, just like at more than 2,400 other Texas law enforcement agencies, is governed by the Texas Public Information Act.

Seventy three Texas cities' records are governed by the state civil service code, and ever since the unions convinced the Legislature to close their misconduct files in 1989, every other law enforcement union has argued they should get get to conceal records about complaints against officers and what departments do about them. The difference in what you can get under the public information act is enormous. Many items HB 1422 and the state civil service code close to the public - the actual original complaints by citizens, for example, and closed investigative files - are among the most important documents for evaluating whether misconduct is being prosecuted or tolerated at police agencies.

Police corruption is an increasing problem in Texas, especially on the border and on the highways, largely as a result of the drug war. Public oversight through transparency of records provides an important layer of accountability for state troopers that shouldn't be diminished.

Having been through this argument many times over many years, let me offer this final prediction: All of the arguments that will be put forward tomorrow by the unions about the grave harm caused to officers by public records fall flat when you realize the same open records provision works fine at more than 2,000 agencies everywhere in the state, even including at county sheriffs and larger agencies like Dallas and El Paso PD. So for heaven's sake, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Leave police state tactics to police states
HB 855 by Delisi would fill local jails with low-level prisoners and give police too much power to harrass people who haven't committed any crime. The bill would expand the crime of "failure to identify." The definition would include not just people who are "arrested" by an officer, which is the current law, but to also include people merely "detained" by police. It would also boost penalties for not complying.

What's the difference between "arrest" and "detention"? Probably a large number of people. To oversimplify, but not by much, under current constitutional law being "detained" means any time a reasonable person wouldn't feel free to leave - not just at a traffic stop but questioning someone on the street or anywhere else. Expanding this "crime" to include those situations would add a lot of petty offenders to local jail populations with little identifiable benefit. It would just give officers a tool to arrest people when they woudn't have another reason to arrest them, like for committing a crime.

Slip Slidin' Away
HB 320 by Buddy West will allow businesses to swipe your drivers license as part of cashing your check to verify information collected on the magnetic stripe. Right now only banks can do that.

This perhaps bothers me more than it might otherwise after recently learning about an Austin man, a confidential informant for the feds who ran 3 Austin convenience stores and was found to have made hundreds of small, fraudulent transactions at or after the point of sale while he was working as their snitch. Checking my ID to let you see if the picture and the signature match is one thing. Scanning it into a computer means you've gathered that information electronically, can store it, and can use it for whatever you want.

I'm not sure I'm okay with that - banks doing it are one thing, but a convenience store requiring it starts to make me nervous.

Does EVERYTHING have to be a crime?
Chairman Driver has another bill up, HB 1765, that is certainly well intentioned but which I think applies the wrong tool to the problem he's trying to solve. He wants to hold employers of commerical license holders accountable for failing to enforce licensure restrictions on their employees. I think we all want commercial drivers properly licensed, but I don't like the idea of using the criminal code (he would make it a Class B misdemeanor). Most offenders will be businesses, so you can't jail them and the fine at that level would be meaningless.

Even if you could jail them, all the urban jails are full! It's time to stop using the criminal justice system as the automatic solution to every problem, and this bill is as good a place to start as any. In my opinion it would be more effective to fine the company significantly, with increases for multiple offenses, under adminstrative codes. Companies care more about their bottom line than jail time - at least Class B jail time. Enron jailtime they still worry about.

A Little Bitty Good Bill
The one bill of the bunch I think is okay, HB 964 by Guillen, would allow students in college-level law enforcement programs to carry a weapon to and from class in their vehicle. That's fine and dandy, but I'd much rather they just pass Rep. Isett's HB 1815 that would let you and me carry a handgun in our personal vehicles, too.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why make DPS misconduct records secret? Every law enforcement agency is bound to have some bad apples and reasonable people understand that. Is someone fearful that there is a greater than average misconduct record among Texas DPS, and therefore we need to hide the problem by making it secret? Making the DPS misconduct records secret tends to suggest that there is something shameful that must be hidden so that authorities can save face. I prefer the sunshine. Let's keep it all transparent!

800 pound gorilla said...

Well, you could make the argument that keeping those records open only gives one more tool for criminals and their sympathizers to harass our lovable police - who always know best what is good for the public. A nasty drug dealer could blackmail police: you either stop harassing my business or I dig up dirt on you for public record. This proposal would take away that weapon for all nasty drug dealers - who are not overwhelmingly addicts like statistics might suggest.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Crooks and addicts don't file open records requests! They'd have to sign their names and go into the bowels of DPS to get the records! I've never heard of that happening.

Plus, if the bad guy requests the records, DPS supervisors would look at them before releasing them! So they couldn't blackmail the cop because his superiors would already know the damaging information being released. I don't buy the "blackmail" argument at all. Corruption coming out is in the public's interest, not the crooks.

M.T. Elliott said...

ID scans for beer?

If you don't like card swiping to cash a check, how about for a sixer of Lone Star? I let them scan me the first time just to see if the machine would notice my ID expired in November. Nope, so what exactly is the machine for?

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