Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Sunset review provides chance to restrict who in Texas gets to have a police force

To attempt to alter policing at a fundamental level is a vast undertaking. You're not changing one agency but thousands of them. America has more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The general public rarely considers and likely barely conceives of the vast scope of law enforcement systems. Just in Texas alone, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement reports that it regulates 2,740 agencies which collectively carry 80,130 peace-officer licenses and 22,944 jailers' licenses.

Law enforcement has grown in Texas in recent decades along several axes: The number of officers employed en toto has increased. The number of agencies has increased. The types of agencies which employ officers has expanded. Their proportion of local budgets have grown.

We're not just talking about the state's 254 county Sheriffs or its 1,800 or so municipal police departments. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 2.12 lists 35 categories of government entities that can employ peace officers, including the Dental, Medical, and Pharmacy boards, water control and improvement districts (!), and the General Services Commission (archaic: this is now the Texas Facilities Commission, which manages state properties).

But wait, there's more!

Railroad companies can employ their own licensed Texas peace officers, as can the Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, whose offices are dubbed "special rangers" in the statute. Eric Dexheimer, now at the Houston Chronicle, had good coverage of this back in 2009.

In counties with less than 200,000 people, security officers for private colleges can be licensed through a local-area Sheriff or police department as "adjunct police officers" - up to 50 per institution.

Police employed by the Alabama Coushatta and Kickapoo tribes can be commissioned by TCOLE.

"School marshals" are licensed police officers in Texas, but unlike, say, Dental Board investigators or railroad company employees, the Code of Criminal Procedure insists that, "A school marshal may not issue a traffic citation." (At this, a light bulb went off over your correspondent's head: Powers of any of these 35+ categories can be limited!)

Thinking broadly, what is the scope of the "policing" industry in Texas? According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Texas in 2015 spent $16 billion on criminal justice, which broke out thusly:
  • Police: 46.2%
  • Judicial: 17.8%
  • Corrections: 36%
So let's assume as a rough estimate that 46 percent of overall criminal-justice expenditures in Texas, state and local combined, goes to pay for these 80,130 police officers at 2,740 agencies.

None of this is new, but the problems have grown and little has been done to rein in unintended consequences from the explosion of law enforcement agencies and officers in the state.

Almost 16 years ago, when your correspondent was director of the Police Accountability Project at the ACLU of Texas, I presented written testimony on this topic to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the first half of which focused on the proliferation of law enforcement agencies. Several of those criticisms still very much apply:
  • Gypsy cops: Officers with histories of misconduct move from agency to agency with no consequences, particularly in smaller jurisdictions.
  • The pool of quality police supervisors in Texas simply is not deep enough to manage 2,540 different agencies. (Grits' note: Today, it's 2,740 agencies.) That means many of these special agencies are being led by managers who are frankly unqualified.
  • Smaller forces don't have sufficient resources for modern, high quality training or equipment for more specialized work needed to solve serious of crimes.
The second part of that testimony, for those interested, discussed Texas' string of "regional narcotics task forces" employing more than 700 officers which were ultimately defunded under Gov. Rick Perry and abolished after a six year campaign. Reading through it, the criticisms sound like those raised in the audit of the Houston PD Narcotics division!

Grits remains skeptical America can ever completely "abolish" police. But I'm downright enthusiastic about abolishing certain types of police, starting with narcotics officers, school cops, and maybe while we're at it, the dental and pharmacy boards, etc.. As the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement undergoes Sunset review, staff and legislators should consider paring back the long list of approved agencies that get their own police force. When it comes to expanding that list, we have long past the point of diminishing returns.

7 comments: said...


Ed said...

and all this expansion has been going on as crime rates declined (since 1990)?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ed, I would put the beginning of the expansion well before that, probably back to the 60s. Police proliferate both when crime is going up (see, you need more of us!) and when it's going down (see, what we do is working!). It's a standard Catch 22.

Anonymous said...

You know, we tried this back in the 1970s. The result was predictable, and was predicted: a decade-long bloodbath in which new all-time records for violent crime were set, some still standing.

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered and Uncensored Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

"You Can't Kill A Dog By Only Killing Fleas on A Dog!!"

Similar can be said about correcting this state's "Tough On Crime" policy that driving
punitive law enforcement and broken window policing that makes enforcement so deadly and designed for revenue collection instead of safety, most caught up in this scheme are poor and black.

To solve a problem, you must identity its solution. The solution: dissolving 143, police union protection and immunity for undeserving public officers, which is not afforded all public officers, appointed or elected.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Tried what, 8:48? The number of police officers and departments expanded in Texas throughout the '70s.

JC said...

Abolish TCOLE