Monday, March 12, 2007

Podunk PDs and Toothless Watchdogs

The Chairman of the Texas House Law Enforcement Committee, Joe Driver, has two noteworthy bills up in his own committee today, one I think is quite necessary, and another that I think is a bad idea.

Stop Proliferation of Podunk PDs
To start with the one I like, HCR 96 is a resolution calling for a moratorium on the creation by the Lege of new types of hyperlocal police agencies, and a joint legislative study to create a policy on what constitutes a police force.

This is sorely needed - as the number of bush-league, penny ante police forces in Texas proliferate, the quality of both officers employed and supervision given them declines. There is only so much supervisory talent in the state, and today it is spread out over more than 2,500 separate law enforcement agencies, creating a web of confusion and logistical problems (particularly in urban areas) from differences in training, procedures, and overlapping jurisdictions.

Article 2.12 of the Code of Criminal Procedure identifies 34 different classes of individuals as police officers, compared to four in the Texas constitution - sheriffs, marshals, constables, and municipal police. Others include airport police, school district police, "municipal park and recreational patrolmen," arson investigators, insurance investigators, officers appointed by appellate courts, the Department of Health, and a variety of others.

Every session it seems like somebody wants a new police agency - a good example this year is HB 702 by Bonnen, which would allow school districts to create a "volunteer reserve police force," for which the school district board would "establish qualifications and standards for training." (If you've ever been to a school board meeting, you know how qualified those folks are to decide such things and can likely guess at the wisdom for leaving issues of "volunteer reserve" police officer qualifications to such local bodies.) Another twist on the police proliferation theme comes in HB 700 by Berman which would extend Texas peace officer authority to most federal agents, creating further confusion.

So Driver's right to want to get this situation under control. I've hoped for a moratorium on creating new, specialized "boutique" police agencies for years. It's difficult because everything goes through different committees - Bonnen's HB 702, for example, was assigned to Public Ed. Bully for the Chairman for tackling the problem. (For those with a particular interest, here's some testimony I gave on the topic a few years ago to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.)

Don't De-Fang Lazy Watchdog
Another piece of legislation by the Chairman, though, bothers me and I hope the Law Enforcement Committee will reconsider the wisdom of moving it without significant changes. HB 488 by Driver restricts the rulemaking authority of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) to enforce licensing restrictions and rules in ways that seem to encourage all but the most serious, finally prosecuted police misconduct. Under the bill,
(d) The commission may revoke a license issued under this chapter to an officer elected under the Texas Constitution only if the officer is convicted of:
(1) a felony; or
(2) a criminal offense directly involving the person ’s duties as an officer.
Under current law, TCLEOSE establishes procedures for recovation of an officer's license, which is automatic right now if an officer commits a felony or official oppression. This bill would restrict TCLEOSE from suspending an officer's license for anything OTHER than the most severe misconduct that's a) discovered and punished by the department, b) reported to and pursued by the District Attorney, and c) vigorously prosecuted, usually over objections of the local police union.

That puts local political barriers between officers and de-licensing that needn't apply, completely gutting the agency's licensing authority, in many ways, though truthfully TCLEOSE already was a rather lazy watchdog.

If this bill passes, the state licensing agency for private investigators will have (much) more authority over its licensees than TCLEOSE will over police officer licenses. Though I haven't looked at the law, I'd guess the same is true for electricians!

Seriously: What good is TCLEOSE's rulemaking authority if literally the only way officers can lose their license is to be convicted of a crime? Why not then just abolish TCLEOSE, if only prosecutors will have the authority to enforce licensing rules?

We've got a significant police corruption problem in this state, particularly in South Texas but really all over. Most officers aren't corrupt, but those who are too often are tolerated. It won't help the problem to de-fang the already near-toothless state police licensing agency. As watchdogs go, the poor old hound was pretty much gumming her food already.


Capitol Annex said...

I wonder if the bill to put a moratorium on new police agencies would extend to police forces created by Independent School Districts under the education code and police forces that are created by Hospital Districts and similar government entities? Or, would it just apply to podunk municipalities?

IMHO, the worst thing the state ever did was let school districts charter their own police forces.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, Vince, I hope I didn't word it confusingly. This wouldn't prevent currently authorized agencies like ISDs from creating or extending police forces. It would stop the biennial addition of new such agencies to the 34 already on the list in Article 2.12 of the Code of Criminal Procedure until the issue can be studied and regularized. The moratorium is on legislative additions to the law, not the locals' ability to create or expand agencies under current law. Like you, I WISH it went that far. best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I should add when I say podunk PDs, I don't just mean rural. I mean all these little two bit "police forces" at school districts, airports, municipal parks, etc. They're usually poorly trained, poorly managed and not integrated into the rest of the city's public safety infrastructure. They're law enforcement's backwater, often run and staffed by folks who couldn't make it in agencies with more stringent standards - that's my meaning by "podunk."

Anonymous said...

The "pudunk" police agency is a creation of the "podunk" government entity that wants their own stormtroopers to enforce their little jurisdictional authority.
It's all an ego trip by the government leaders. The cops are just a product of their puppet masters, who usually end up using them as a revenue generator (ie, speedtraps).
The State Dental Examiners investigators just got Peace Officer status last legislature....the Dentist Police????

800 pound gorilla said...

Prosecutors have zero incentive to aggressively pursue complaints of police misconduct. They are dependent on police for convictions and gain or retain office based on 'success rates'. Unless police mess with well connected people who have lawyers on retainer [which is why police enforce drug laws almost exclusively in barrios and ghettos] there are strong incentives to just ignore most citizen complaints. This explains why Black and Hispanic groups throw tizzy fits every time one of their own gets caught on tape being beaten by police. For every one caught in the act, there are at least a dozen who get away scot free.