Friday, October 15, 2004

Police proliferation problematic

Presently Texas has 2,540 separate law enforcement agencies licensed with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. That's an average of 10 law enforcement agencies per county, including not just local police and sheriffs departments, but school district police, college campus police (universities, junior and community colleges), airport police, parks police, and a wide variety of other supposedly specialized units. In reality, these smaller agencies often aren't "specialized" at all, but merely marginal. They must pick from the bottom of the barrel for applicants and management after the bigger dogs get theirs.

The proliferation of small, specialized police forces threatens to undermine the credibility of law enforcement, especially at smaller agencies, and has caused accountability for police officers generally to decline. Here are the main problems caused by this explosion of specialized agencies:

  1. Gypsy cops: Having so many special forces creates a problem with so-called “gypsy cops,” where officers move from small agency to small agency, typically after misconduct or other problems that may indicate their unsuitability to wear a police uniform. Officers in Texas know if they misbehave and get fired they can just move on down the road. Tom Coleman, the undercover officer in the Tulia scandal, is the most famous example of a gypsy cop (which is law enforcement slang popularized by the Tulia case). Coleman’s troubles at a prior agency came to a head in Tulia when a warrant was actually issued for his arrest while he was working undercover!
  2. Resources: Smaller forces don’t have sufficient resources for modern, high quality policing, or for more specialized police work involving particular types of crimes.
  3. Fragmentation: Having so many different agencies means information sharing is basically impossible, fragmenting potential for seamless intelligence gathering regarding criminal activity. After 9-11, the federal government changed its laws and policies to allow federal agencies to share more information with law enforcement regarding terrorism, but this local fragmentation makes that goal unwieldy at best and unachievable at worst.
  4. Supervisor shortage: The pool of quality police supervisors in Texas simply is not deep enough to manage 2,540 different agencies. That means many of these special agencies are being led by managers who are frankly unqualified.
  5. Qualifications not uniform: Having so many agencies means that a mind-boggling array of differing hiring, training and employment practices exist from agency to agency inevitably muddying the public’s ability to determine if an agency hires good officers.
  6. Equal protection: Non-civil service agencies in cities whose main police department is covered under the state civil service code can find themselves in a situation where different labor rules cover different law enforcement employees, even when they have the same employer. E.g., in Austin APD is covered under the civil service code, while the parks and airport police are not civil service agencies, even though all the officers get a City of Austin paycheck.
  7. Too expensive: Having licensed police officers in schools and parks is frequently overkill, a more-expensive-than-necessary overreaction to security problems. Security guards equipped to call 911 or a police dispatcher would be cheaper than commissioned officers, and could handle virtually every situation that arises, especially in school scenarios (for parks police, there’s a need to allow them to write tickets).
  8. Mission creep: In schools, officers' presence has led to mission creep, where officers actually teach DARE programs in schools as though they were a regular teacher. Studies show these programs are ineffective at preventing drug use, and using commissioned officers as teachers is much more expensive than paying teachers to handle the same classroom duties.
One can't turn back the tide with a spade, but a few common sense reforms come to mind that state and local governments could take to begin to rein in the problem.
  • Consolidation of specialized police forces should be a state priority, with both carrots and sticks employed to convince local agencies to cooperate.
  • Where possible, alternative security arrangements to using commissioned officers should be implemented, with non-commissioned guards relying on 911 service in the event of occasional but rare need for actual police powers.
  • A single statewide school police force could be created and run centrally, in Texas' case from the Texas Education Agency. All officers would still be locally funded. If a school district wanted officers in their school, they would pay for them, but TEA would formally hire, employ and manage the officers, who like DPS troopers might be transferred around over time according to state needs. Such an arrangement would provide more uniform hiring and disciplinary practices, and keep officers who get in trouble at one school from moving along to the next one, while relieving a significant security cost burden from the shoulders of local taxpayers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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