Friday, March 30, 2007

Monday's Law Enforcement Agenda: Four 'bad bills that need a good killing'

Looking ahead to Monday's Texas House Law Enforcement Committee hearing, I saw four bills on the agenda worth highlighting.

In my recent site survey, a reader suggested that I identify more "bad bills than need a good killing." All four of these bills, IMO, fall into that category. Let's run through them:

Sobriety checkpoints
I've never understood the push for sobriety checkpoints. They have sort of a "Can I see your papers, comrade?" feel to them that to me just seems anti-American. (In El Paso the Sheriff improperly used what were essentially roving checkpoints for immigration enforcement as part of Operation Linebacker and had to shut down the operation.)

From a legal perspective the Supreme Court has ruled them acceptable in narrow instances, but unacceptable in others - here's a link to the Wikipedia entry on the topic, and perhaps someone in the comments can explain better than I when a police stop is a "detention" and when they're allowed to do it anyway in pursuit of broader public safety goals.

But to me that's an important but secondary concern to the fact that, as a law enforcement tactic, it's the most ineffective possible use of traffic enforcement personnel - one that generates a high profile for the agency with the public and the media, but low results per resources expended.

Stopping hundreds of people on the off chance you'll stop a handful of drunks is simply a mindless, scattershot approach. If half as many officers were busy rigorously patroling the bar district, it would make a bigger difference.

According to Wikipedia, "the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after extensive field studies, concluded that 'the number of DWI arrests made by the roving patrol program was nearly three times the average number of DWI arrests made by the checkpoint programs.'" [2]
That makes sense when you think about it - you're more likely to find a drunk pulling over traffic violators than just pulling over everybody randomly.

Anyway, whatever their constitutionality or effectiveness, MADD and other anti-DWI groups have made them their benchmark for being "tuff" on drunks, so Rep. Todd Smith and a host of cosponsors have joined to present HB 253, whose language tries to navigate the narrow framework allowed by Supreme Court rulings. I'm not a lawyer, so others must judge whether the bill succeeds on that score. But if it's a more ineffective tactic, not to mention constitutionally questionable depending on how it's implemented, I don't think the Lege should do it on those grounds alone.

Leap, Don't Look, Then Leap Again
What happens to kids seized from their parents convicted of meth use? Right now nobody knows.

In 2005 the Texas Lege passed what I considered an ill-advised bill restricting pseudoephedrine sales that included provisions for taking children away from anyone found manufacturing meth near a child. HB 946 by Miller would expand the range of people whose children would be seized to anyone "possessed" or in any way introduced meth into the body of any other person.

You might think it'd be a good thing to know how many kids have been or would be affected by this policy before passing such a bill, but as far as I can tell no one seems to care. The House Law Enforcement Committee studied the effects of the 2005 legislation during the interim, but as I wrote in December, the committee:
failed to focus at all in its report on the most important aspect of this bill: What happened to the children seized as a result of this new law? Were they later returned to their parents? Did they enter the foster care system? Since HB 164 provided no new or specialized resources for these chidren, do we know whether they received counseling and support needed by a child traumatized by removal from their family? None of these questions are discussed in the report - we don't even know how many children were seized under the new law - 10, 50, 100, 500, quien sabe?

[I wrote then,] Did anybody see
60 Minutes' segment on foster children who were taken away from their parents last night? Here's the video. What happens psychologically to children under such circumstances really can't be understood unless you've witnessed it. These kids are psychically brutalized then basically thrown away. And the Law Enforcement Committee's report reflects that - nobody even looked to see what happened to them.
So now, Rep. Miller comes forward with a bill that will likely dramatically increase the number of kids seized from meth using parents. Really? How many will there be? What services will they need? How much will it cost? We don't know; in its interim report the Law Enforcement Committee didn't even know how many kids were seized under the law as it's already written.

Can the system handle them all? No telling. Certainly since they aren't tracked there are no targeted services for these youth, which is a missed long-term crime prevention opportunity. Children of incarcerated parents are estimated to be 6-8 times more likely than their peers to follow their parent's footsteps into prison as an adult.

There's no fiscal note posted on this yet, but Texas arrests a lot of meth users. I'd be surprised if we're not talking about seizing a pretty large cadre of kids in the scheme of things. The Committee should look before it leaps on this bill. Since they know from their own report they don't have information about the kids already seized under this law, they need to look after those kids' wellbeing before significantly expanding their numbers. Given what's going on with TYC, it'd be better to find out what's going on with them first, I'd think.

Subsidizing Alarm Companies, For What?
I'm no fan of burglar alarm companies like ADT and others that purport to notify the police to protect your family from home invaders, etc. Basically these are huge, taxpayer subsidized boondoggles with little public safety purpose - in some cities more than 99% of calls are false alarms, and even those that aren't false don't catch anybody by the time police arrive. If you're looking for security, buy a dog. It's more effective at scaring away crooks and at least you'll have someone to console you after your stuff is stolen.

Home alarms in particular are an enormous waste of police time, and in some jurisdictions are the most common type of police call. Some cities have responded to the problem by requiring "verified response" from alarm companies (i.e., the company must verify a crime was committed before the police come). That puts the cost and onus on the company that's making the profit, instead of having taxpayers eat the primary security cost while private companies make money off the public service. However, Rep. Buddy West's HB 1906 would require municipalities to hold a full-blown plebicscite before making such a decision! My first thought: Uh ... isn't that what we elect city councils for?

The Burglar and Fire Alarm Association was a significant contributor to Chairman Driver in the 2006 election cycle, but I hope that won't sway him or others to hamstring cities trying to maximize the public safety impact of police spending. There probably isn't a single other reform that would immediately put more new officers' boots on the ground, or at least divert them from useless endeavors to useful ones. From a public policy perspective, I'd rather see the Lege requiring verified response rather than try to get in its way.

Keep thorough records about officer terminations
The issue over what records should be kept and shared with other agencies when an officer is terminated has been a hot one over the last several sessions, largely because of one man - Tom Coleman, the so-called "gypsy cop" who'd been fired from multiple law enforcement agencies before landing in Tulia, Texas for what turned out to be his final policing gig.

Records at the state licensing agency, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE), hadn't given supervisors who hired Coleman a clear picture of trangressions at his previous employer, so after much brouhaha, last session Chairman Driver and Sen. Kel Seliger (whose district includes Tulia) passed legislation to require departments to record with TCLEOSE the reasons an officer was terminated.

Now Driver would delete that requirement, as well as change the definition of when an officer is "dishonorably discharged." Under current law, the term dishonorable discharge "applies only to an officer whose employment was terminated for a violation of law or department policy or for other substantiated misconduct." Chairman Driver's bill would narrow that definition to say that
"Dishonorably discharged" means:
(A) the officer retired or resigned in lieu of termination for a criminal offense;
(B) the officer was terminated for a criminal offense after charges were filed;
(C) the officer was terminated for a criminal offense;
(D) the officer retired or resigned in lieu of termination for an administrative violation of truthfulness or insubordination; or
(E) the officer was terminated for an administrative violation of truthfulness or insubordination
So under this new terminology, the only adminstrative violations that would merit the label "dishonorable discharge" are for "truthfulness or insubordination," whereas previously the term applied to any "substantial misconduct." I see no good reason to change the definition except to allow officers fired for good cause to find new employment without their bosses' knowing about their past. Who benefits from that? Only bad cops whose misconduct is allowed to continue until they're arrested and prosecuted.

This is Chairman Driver's second bill reducing accountability at TCLEOSE, which in my opinion is an agency whose power should be bolstered and emboldened, not further diminished. One wonders whether it will require some TYC-type scandal for the Legislature to re-energize this toothless watchdog.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

@markm - That's not exactly a policy of firing for truthfulness. That says that IF the officer is fired for truthfulness, that information must be disclosed to the next employer. Firings for other reasons than those stated do not have to be disclosed, under this bill. Current law makes them describe in narrative form why the officer was terminated, and this bill would also eliminate that.

San Antonio's PD implemented a firing for truthfulness policy a few years ago, and it wound up affecting so many cases I think the new chief revised it, if I remember correctly, to no longer require firing in all cases.

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention the tobacco bill. That one literally stinks. There will be Inmates who can not afford cigerattes, and will steal from others and you will have trouble. Making prisons smoke free was one of the best ideas ever and those people who had to stop smoking are healthy now and you want to make them sick again. How very stupid!! Anyone who votes for this bill has never seen a black lung removed from a smoker, not pretty and neither is dying from lung cancer. Throw this stupid bill in the dump!!