Monday, June 15, 2020

Time to consider disbanding police departments in Texas (and no, I'm not calling to "abolish" police)

Grits has been thinking a lot recently about the barriers to meaningful police reform in Texas and ways around them. Chief among those barriers is the state civil service code governing most larger police agencies and various police-union contracts authorized by it.

Both the civil service code and those contracts include provisions making it difficult to fire police officers who engage in misconduct and, in the case of the contracts, may lock in certain employment and spending levels that thwart efforts to divest money from police and reinvest in other services that make people safer. 

In San Antonio, for example, 2/3 of fired officers get their job back, the Express-News reported recently. Repeatedly, officers at the center of high-profile misconduct episodes are reinstated by local civil-service commissions or arbitrators. It can be infuriating.

Long-time readers know the civil service code (Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143) has been the bane of Grits' existence for more than two decades. There are so many anti-accountability elements to it, it's mind boggling, and even folks like me who're familiar with its workings keep being surprised at how egregiously misguided are some of its provisions. E.g., I only recently learned about limitations on firing police chiefs, and I've been paying attention to these topics since 1995.

Grits has been among a vanishingly small group of people trying since the 1997 Texas legislative session to get some of these provisions changed, and we've never been successful. Texas has passed other policing reforms over the years, but in all that time, nobody's ever cracked the civil-service code nut in the Lone Star State. The police unions have been too powerful and reformers' natural institutional allies in that fight - police chiefs and the Texas Municipal League - have been too cowardly and restrained.

Plus, quite frankly, until about five minutes ago there simply wasn't broad-based support for police reform, even (perhaps especially) among Democrats. In Texas, at least (I can't speak to other states), all the folks now crowing that we must "abolish" the police were nowhere to be found when their budgets were ballooning over the last couple of decades. 

After the Ferguson protests, we began to see a handful of young advocates engaging in budget processes, but mostly aiming to limit growth: prospects for actually reducing budgets were for all intents and purposes, non-existent. For example, the Austin Justice Coalition, which recently called for a $100 million reduction in the Austin PD budget, before now has limited its asks to not adding more police positions to the budget. And they've never once won that battle.

Indeed, despite recent calls to "defund police" or to hold bad officers accountable, those lonely few of us pushing to restrain or reduce police budgets or improve police accountability mechanisms in Texas have typically found more allies in the conservative camp, where the agendas of opposing unions and reducing government budgets more naturally find ideological purchase, than among the lefty set. That's changing now, as new liberal allies step up. But it's important to recognize this is a very belated development.

So how do we crack this nut? Realistically, I see only two options. First, there's a (slight, IMO almost negligible) chance that the terms of political debate on these topics have so fundamentally changed that the Texas Legislature will act to scale back civil-service code protections for bad cops in the 2021 session. Honestly, I'm not holding my breath, and even if that happened, it fails to address the budgetary issues that crowd out funding for more effective solutions to problems like homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.

Instead, I've become convinced that the real solution may only be found in the examples of Camden, NJ, and now Minneapolis: Civil service departments must be formally disbanded and differently reconstituted. All the officers must be let go and then departments must create lists of those with problematic records and simply refuse to extend them job offers.

That's not to say Grits supports abolition of police. I don't. I support radically scaling back their budgets and overall footprint and spending the money instead on services-oriented approaches to homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. But actual crime and violent people do, in fact, exist, and failures to address them hurt black folks as disproportionately as does wanton police violence. (Much more on this, later.)

The goal of disbanding police departments is different from abolition. The purpose is to re-launch without the limits of the state civil service code and bypass anti-accountability provisions in union contracts. Whereas abolitionists would end policing altogether, disbanding police departments and reconstituting them seeks a fresh start, unencumbered by the bad decisions and practices of the past.

In some jurisdictions, this may also be the only way to reduce the size and scope of police forces. Some police contracts (but not all) limit departments' ability to abolish police positions or layoff officers. (Thankfully, in Austin the city retains that authority, but that's not universally true elsewhere.)

Dr. Phillip Goff points out that some contracts require a last-hired, first-fired policy in the event of layoffs. (He actually claimed all of them do, but that's factually inaccurate - e.g., Austin's contract contains no such provision.) This creates a problem because younger officers are likely to be more diverse and more progressive, while officers from the baby-boomer and Gen X generations may come to the table with racist and ideological baggage with which subsequent generations are less encumbered.

For agencies with last-hired-first-fired provisions in their contracts, getting rid of those old-school officers may actually cost more money in the short term via financial incentives to retire early. That certainly flies in the face of the defund-the-police agenda!

OTOH, many officers who engage in significant misconduct do so early in their careers. In Austin, Christopher Taylor has been on the force five years, has already killed two people under dubious circumstances, and admitted in court to filing a false police report that covered up misconduct by other officers.

What you really want is the opportunity for a clean sweep: To identify officers with problematic backgrounds, young and old, and excise them from the force in one fell swoop. Only disbanding/reconstituting departments would afford that option.

Grits is not a labor lawyer (nor any kind of lawyer at all, for that matter), and I have little doubt that there will be unforeseen difficulties and complications to this approach. But the entire police-reform project is fraught with difficulties and complications. There's no easy solution to any of this and anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you. For me, I'm willing to try a new difficult path, because the difficult path we've been on doesn't appear it will get us anywhere close to a desired destination.

UPDATE/CAVEAT: Michelle Phelps and others have pointed out that Camden NJ engages in aggressive "broken windows" policing (under the guise of "community policing") in ways that are problematic and one wouldn't want to replicate. (See this coverage, for example.) Grits agrees. I'm only calling to replicate the tactic of disbanding and reconstituting the department, not every jot and tittle of their approach after that.


Anonymous said...

Strange coincidence or not readily visible that the cases giving rise to the protest and rioting stem from "police departments." Hardly ever hear of rioting or protesting when it is a Texas Ranger, DPS, or Sheriff's Office? Are they better trained or are they never confronted with lethal use of force?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

We've seen serious misconduct at both DPS and Sheriffs, I wouldn't say that's accurate. To me, whether protests or widespread public disapprobation ensues is often a function of whether bystander cell-phone video exists. It's possible that happens more often at urban police departments than those other agencies.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That said, except in Harris County, Sheriffs offices aren't covered by the state civil service code. So it's easier for them to fire bad cops than at Ch. 143 police agencies.

Republicans 4 Defund Police said...

Yes - The only way to free ourselves from the taxpayer funded lobbying of the Police Unions and CLEAT, and their national support, is to completely DEFUND the city owned & operated policing. Shift to contracting for police services. Bust the monooply of socialized policing. Please join the facebook group Republicans 4 Defund Police.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not personally for privatized policing - I don't think the American public will accept giving mercenaries police powers, and rightfully so. Plus, it would lead to underinvestment in safety in poor communities (even granting that police spending isn't the only way to promote safety). But reducing the policing footprint isn't necessarily something "small government" conservatives should dislike. It's really in many instances the only part of government where they abandon the "less government" critique.

Oil Lease said...

Let's not forget many of the problems originate right at the legislature level. Always passing more laws and making the consequences of old laws much harsher.

Also let's not forget Texas has a long tradition of "punishment" rather than rehabilitation. So many crimes that used to be simple misdemeanors are now felonies and the costs to the people charged are so high they sometimes turn to stealing and selling drugs just to stay out of jail or getting someone else to break the law to get them out.

Watching someone you know isn't a bad person rot away in jail is enough to get the least person to perform a crime to do just that. When it's family it's hard to watch them suffer for no good reason.

Gadfly said...

Camden isn't the solution many people think it is, and the whole "abolish Camden PD" is marketing and gentrification connected as much as anything.

LC in Texas said...

It is my belief that incompetent employees need to be fired from working for the public. Unions seem to be a problem these days, they had a purpose in the past but I feel they have outlived their usefulness. It is not right that taxpayer paid employees belong to a Union. I would like to know the reasoning for Unions of this day & age? The best and brightest is what America needs! Competition has always been the answer to success and incompetence should not be tolerated.