"Why did the foot doctors need a police agency?" asks Joe Driver, the state representative who was chairman of the committee that denied the Texas board of foot doctors its police force.At last count, Texas has 2,615 police agencies of various stripes around the state, which NPR reports employ "more than 73,000 sworn peace officers — roughly one for every 330 people."
The podiatry board has withdrawn its request for its own cops, as state and federal authorities have beefed up investigations of health care, or foot care, fraud.
The proliferation of boutique police agencies has raised the concern of the Texas Municipal Police Association. Their lobbyist, Tom Gaylor, worries that specialized police forces aren't ready for prime time.
"What kind of resources does that agency have?" Gaylor asks. "Where are they going to take an arrested person? What type of backup availability is there? One of the biggest concerns we have is what type of communication do they have between that agency and other agencies nearby?"
And what are their use-of-force guidelines?
On Aug. 16, three peace officers with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — charged with enforcing the state's alcohol laws — approached a suspect who was being pursued by Austin police. The agents claim the suspect tried to run them over. They shot him — and he later died. The incident is being investigated by the Texas Rangers.
Gaylor says with more and more peace officers out there, he doesn't want the public to get confused. The Police Association will be working with the Legislature in the next session to define a peace officer.
"We want to be [sure] a cop is a cop is a cop," Gaylor says. "And if you see a cop, you understand what you're getting."
Meanwhile, the fastest-growing category of new police forces is public school districts. In Texas, 163 school districts have their own police departments. More than one-quarter of them have just one officer.
How many is too many? At some point, there's a cost tradeoff. If they were all paid as well as Austin police officers, it would bankrupt the state. Or agencies can try to hire officers on the cheap and end up with crappy gypsy cops like Tom Coleman or Michael Meissner. That's a particular concern, one would think, in the current era, when two wars and a beefed up homeland security apparatus have soaked up much of the labor supply that normally might seek police employment.
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