Sunday, August 23, 2009

Proliferation of police agencies problematic

The Austin Statesman today published a piece titled "A proliferation of police agencies in Texas" describing problems created by the growing number of licensed peace officers at tiny, specialized agencies with little oversight. Here's how it begins:
The Texas State Board of Pharmacy, which licenses and disciplines pharmacists, has its own. So do the state Department of Insurance and the Board of Dental Examiners.

The Mackenzie Municipal Water Authority, which supplies water to four small Panhandle towns, has one, as does the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a private trade group. Concordia University Texas recently acquired its own.

Every organization that might conceivably come into contact with a scofflaw, it seems, wants its own police department. And in Texas, many get to have them.

"The joke at the Capitol," said Tom Gaylor, who lobbies for the Texas Municipal Police Association, which has opposed the proliferation of policing agencies, "is that it's often easier to identify those who aren't police officers."

In recent years, the peace officer designation has spread far beyond its original constitutional definition of constables, sheriffs, marshals and police officers. Since 1965, legislators have amended the state's Code of Criminal Procedure, which sets out who can designate their own police department, nearly 50 times.

The result: Today there are three dozen types of agencies, institutions, boards, commissions and political subdivisions that can appoint their own law enforcement agents. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, which licenses police officers, keeps tabs on 2,615 separate law enforcement agencies.
The whole piece is full of interesting examples and well worth a read. The author hits on several of the issues I touched on five years ago providing testimony to the Legislature on this topic. Here were the main concerns raised in that testimony:
The proliferation of special 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. Special forces create 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 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 misdemeanor warrant was issued for his arrest while he was working undercover.

2. Resources: Smaller forces don't have sufficient resources for modern, high quality training or equipment for more specialized work involving special types of crimes.

3. Fragmentation: Having so many different agencies assures that information sharing will never be reliable, fragmenting potential for seamless intelligence gathering regarding criminal activity. After 9-11, the federal government changed its laws 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. Reporting, even for key statistics like arrests and prosecutions, is not consistent in Texas even among the 254 counties in the state, much less for the 2500+ separate little agencies around the state. The sheer number of distinct agencies makes monitoring compliance with reporting virtually impossible, which in turn means that this state does not have clear data upon which to base criminal justice policy.

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 policies and practices from agency to agency muddy the public's ability to determine if an agency hires good officers or maintains high quality policies and practices in the department.

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 police and Austin ISD police are not civil service agencies.

7. Too expensive: Having police in schools and parks is overkill, a more-expensive-than-necessary overreaction to security problems. Security guards equipped to call 911 if needed would be cheaper than commissioned Texas peace officers, and could handle virtually every situation that arises, especially in school scenarios. For parks police, police officers from the local PD could write necessary tickets.

8. Mission creep: In schools, officers presence has led to mission creep, where officers now teach DARE programs in schools as though they're 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. Additionally, because they are so abundant police officers end up enforcing simple school rules that would be more appropriately handled by the principal.

9. Letting loose the dogs: Off-duty employment of officers is common, so even at the most marginal departments, officers will possess full-blown police powers 24-7, often exercised on Friday and Saturday night, for example, as bouncers at bars or in some other potentially problematic capacity. But it's likely that the level of supervision found at larger agencies, where some like Houston PD still have had problems, will be lower or non-existent at these tiny agencies no one pays attention to.
Today, according to the Statesman, Texas has 75 more departments than it did when I wrote that five years ago. But are there enough quality officers and supervisors to go around? And if not, is it really wise to issue a weapon and police powers without stringent oversight?

The issue of officer quality in these penny-ante departments was raised in dramatic fashion recently when one police officer with the Katy ISD police abducted another officer in the department and held her at gun point in an intense standoff with police last week before finally releasing her and committing suicide. That can't make parents in Katy confident that the school district is hiring quality officers.

Texas is a big place, but we don't need 2,615 law enforcement agencies by a longshot. I could see cutting that number in half without significantly harming public safety.


Don Dickson said...

This situation IS a joke, and not a funny one either, and it's high time that the Legislature got a handle on it.

Why in heaven's name does the Texas Board of Podiatric Examiners need a licensed peace officer? (Is he the "foot patrolman?")

I don't want to paint too many people with too broad a brush, but the Legislature truly has time-and-again enacted the Barney Fife Full Employment Act. And it's got to stop.

Over the past decade or so, the Legislature has repeatedly tinkered with the criminal record expungement statutes, making it more and more difficult to expunge records. Then a few years ago they gave us this funky thing called an "order for nondisclosure," meaning that the record would continue to exist but would only be disclosable to "law enforcement."

So you apply for a job as a receptionist at the Board of Podiatric Examiners, and....

Anonymous said...

You got it wrong. We HAVE to have all these LEO's to arrest people for the ever-growing number of state felonies which keep getting passed by our "tough-on-crime-reeelect-me" legislators. We need Gypsy Police" to individually target all those as yet unarrested and unprosecuted crimes wrecked by gypsies. And we need a special "Oyster Police" to protect us from all those oyster felons (and not just in the coastal counties, but in all Texas counties). Along with overzealous prosecutors, we can expand the criminal justice cottage-industries, for example, more prisons, fines, and higher taxes. Texans do not want Blind Justice, we want the blind pursuit of justice!

ckikerintulia said...

The MacKenzie Water Authority has its own police agency? Geez! I get part of my water from there, except Lake Mackenzie is just about dry. Had no idea. Have no idea why. (Lake Mackenzie was formed by damming Tule Creek in Tule Canyon. Named after General Mackenzie who killed all the Comanches' horses in the 1870's, and sent the Indians walking back to their reservation in Oklahoma. Provides some water for Tulia, Silverton, Floydada, and Lockney.)

Soronel Haetir said...

I find the school cops especially strange, my experience outside Texas is that even if police are stationed at a school they are assigned from the surrounding municipality rather than being an independent agency.

As for licensing boards having sworn officers I recall seeing something similar about federal agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The article I recall indicated that it started out with some good reasoning but then mostly morphed into a way to pay more while not messing up the budget process.

Don Dickson said...

Don't even get me started on the school police, er, excuse me, "resource officers." (Uh-oh, might be too late.)

Years ago I represented a girl from Dobie Middle School here in Austin who'd been charged with criminal assault. She pushed another girl in the cafeteria. Now, back-in-the-day, this used to get you sent to the principal's office. Now, you're charged with a crime.

The girl had been having some behavioral problems at school, but was getting decent grades. I asked "well, what kind of behavioral problems?" Turns out that among them was that she would fall asleep in class, and then would be cranky and irritable. I asked what time of day this most commonly occurred, and lo and behold, it was usually in the hour or two hours after lunch.

I asked if anyone if my 13-year old obese client had been referred to the school dietician for an assessment and counseling. "Oh no, we don't have a dietician."

When I was that age, my school had a dietician, but no police officers.

And BTW....again, at the risk of painting too many people with too broad a brush....I worry that some of these officers take these jobs just so 17-year old girls can roller skate over their tongues all day.

Commander PopTart said...

The one agency they didn't mention was the Texas Lottery Commission. They also have a law enforcement component to ensure that if you win the big Lotto prize, the officer can run you through TCIC and various other databases to make sure you have no warrants, you paid off your college loans, and you're paying child support.

I don't know why we need this since I would suspect that some other agency (say Capital DPS) could perform this function. But instead, we pay for a landing strip for retired police officers, which is who staffs these positions at the Lottery Commission.

A lot of these positions and agencies are a second source of income for retired peace officers, even though many have a much better pension system than typical local and county municipal employees who pick up trash or keep the water and wastewater system operating.

Good job Austin American Statesman for following up on this issue. I've always believed that agencies like TABC and Travis County Constable District 3 (remember the guy who Tasered grandma this spring) have some less-than-desirables with a gun, badge, and a take home Ford Crown Victoria.

Anonymous said...


We can't afford to fit gym, art, music, not to mention enough teachers, proper health classes or nutrition in the curriculum, nurses have to travel from school to school because we can't afford one per school but yet we can afford the School Police. American education is so substandard we have to spend most of the year “teaching the test” so the school can pass the grade but we can afford School Police.

For what? So we can fire the school disciplinarian (do they even have those any more?) and clog up the court system with more cases of Sally pushed Jane in the hallway or a host of other non issues that once led to detention and now lead to arrests?

Oh wait. I got it now. We NEED School Police so that not only can we ignore that our children are getting substandard educations but we can get them in the system early and not waste time by waiting for them to grow up and commit real crimes. Gotta keep those State run “special schools” for those with disciplinary problems stocked and all those employed there providing those “special services” in jobs so what the Appleseed report calls the “pipeline from school to prison” flows smoothly.


Anonymous said...


Any community or state that does not have a civilian review board with powers to suspend, investigate, terminate and prosecute police officers is a police state. It is that simple.

Does your state qualify? According to what I read on Grits for Breakfast, it is "yes sirreee, bub."

Scott D said...

Speaking of gypsy cops, here's a perfect example.

Even some legitimate municipalities have a hard enough time supervising officers in small towns.

Maybe if DPS provided more police services than writing tickets, working wrecks and drug interdiction they could provide enforcement for the abundance of state agencies that need law enforcement. Of course, that might necessitate changes at DPS too.

They could also provide law enforcement services to these towns too small to run their own police department well. There are a number of other states whose state police actually function as State Police.

Anonymous said...

In my book any armed bureaucrat with real time authoritah to P on the constitution invites corruption, abuse of the law, and is an insult to freedom and justice. I don't blame bureaucrats as much as I blame the politicians that refuse to clean up the messes made by their more stupid laws.

In this instance, a judge essentially ruled that if armed TABC enforcement agents wanted to score free pr0n, they should get it from the internet, legally, like everyone else does.

"Jul. 26--A federal judge has barred the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission from seizing material it deems obscene without getting a ruling from a judge, saying the practice violates the constitutional protection of free speech. U.S. District Judge Gray Miller, ruling in a lawsuit by a distributor of adult materials, also struck down as unconstitutional the statute the TABC was enforcing in seizing magazines, videos and other materials. The ruling late Monday marked the second time this year that the agency has been taken to task for overzealous enforcement.

While some might say this is ultimately a case of the "system" working, I don't. The practice was rampant until one of the injured parties found the cash and the guts to stand up to the system. In doing so, he risked harrasement on the part of the TABC as well as the loss of the government's "permission" to engage in free commerce by selling alcoholic beverages.

Maybe if citizens had the power to file law suits against politicians that pass stupid and excessive regulatory laws, we'd suffer from less brain dead legislation.

Anonymous said...

We're not called Prison Nation for nothing. All those rent-a-cops have to make lots of arrests to justify their phony jobs.

We're becoming a full-fledged police state, one Mickey Mouse agency at a time.

Anonymous said...

Simple solution, put all state peace officers under DPS....

Anonymous said...

I worry about the small 2 street towns than i do a state agency having police

Anonymous said...

Here's the fix. Make a graduated authority level based on the population numbers and specific scope of duties. Then again, it's a little late to fix now. There will be even more police agencies in another year. Terrorism hysteria does wonders.