Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Sunset recommendation for a 'blue-ribbon panel' on Texas police licensing agency: Grits wonders what's left to study?

The new Sunset Commission report for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement came out earlier this month: A once-every-12-years review of agency functions and practices. The good news: They didn't short sell the problems. (See more background here.)

Their issue #1 stated flatly that "Texas' Approach to Regulating Law Enforcement is Ineffective," an observation with which Grits wholeheartedly agrees. They described a "fragmented, outdated system with poor accountability, lack of statewide standards, and inadequate training."

What's more, "The state’s regulatory model, bifurcated between state and local government, creates significant gaps that undermine the purpose of statewide licensure, and does not best ensure public safety or law enforcement accountability and transparency."

This one is close to Grits' heart and familiar to long-time readers of this blog: "TCOLE’s minimum training standards are outdated and ultimately do not meet the evolving needs of law enforcement personnel in Texas." Training was outdated, they found, and continuing education requirements insufficient. The same was true not just for cops but jailers and 911 operators.

Further, Sunset staff opined, "the state’s regulation of law enforcement is, by and large, toothless." In particular, "Regulatory agencies should be able to hold licensees accountable for administrative violations, violations of standards of conduct, and criminal violations. However, state law only allows TCOLE to hold licensees accountable for criminal convictions or deferred adjudications, and violations of TCOLE statute and rule, including continuing education requirements."

The biggest shortcoming they found was the agency's inability to revoke licenses for serious misconduct:
TCOLE lacks explicit statutory authority to take action against other types of serious misconduct [beyond cases resulting in a criminal conviction], even when the behavior is relevant to an individual’s professionalism and fitness for licensure. For example, TCOLE was not able to take action against an officer who recently gave a dog feces sandwich to a person experiencing homelessness in San Antonio. The officer was fired, rehired by the city after arbitration, and then subsequently fired again for a second incident involving the use of feces. In contrast, if a licensee fails to maintain requirements for licensure, like continuing education, TCOLE has the authority to suspend, reprimand, or even revoke the license. In fiscal year 2019, the majority of TCOLE’s administrative enforcement actions, 68 percent, were taken in response to continuing education deficiencies. 
Well, Hallelujah! If the dog-shit sandwich guy can't be decommissioned, what use is a licensing agency?

Even with limited authority, Sunset staff reports between 500-600 officers per year lose their  licenses in dishonorable discharges over criminal convictions. A bit more than a quarter of those are later rehired at other agencies, Sunset staff found.  

These observations, as stark as they are, we've heard before. What's new is the conclusion they reach based on these observations: "Especially in today’s environment, rather than attempting to repair a fundamentally broken system, it is time to take a comprehensive look at how the state regulates law enforcement and make needed changes to protect the health, safety, and welfare of Texans as well as law enforcement personnel."

But after all these harsh criticisms, they propose a "blue-ribbon panel" to evaluate TCOLE's functions, coming back in two years with recommendations. Grits considers that unnecessary. Texas knows what a licensing agency should look like; the state runs a ton of them. They just need to empower the agency in statute and fund them at a level where they can fulfill their mission.

Luckily, Grits has identified a source for all the funds the state needs to ramp up regulation of police officers and do it right: Charge licensing fees, just like the state does for plumbers, hair dressers, doctors and lawyers. We don't need a blue-ribbon panel to accomplish it, just greater political will.

Yes, TCOLE's board is too law-enforcement slanted and their statutory mission too narrow and devoid of accountability functions, but these are just the sorts of things Sunset review is supposed to tackle. What will change two years from now and who are these "blue ribbon" experts whose advice we haven't already heard? Asking for a friend.


Meanwhile, coupled with other recent data, looking at TCOLE licensure reminds me that the Texas law-enforcement ecosystem is incredibly vast. 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%
Texas has nearly 80,000 licensed officers on any given day working for nearly 2,800 agencies, according to TCOLE. In 2019, reported Sunset staff, those officers "responded to reports of 120,508 violent crimes and 685,371 property crimes." In addition, we know from racial profiling reports that Texas police made 9.5 million traffic stops in 2019, giving 5.3 million citations for Class C misdemeanor traffic and parking violations plus another 1.1 tickets for municipal-ordinance violations (reported the Office of Court Administration). Throw in the Drug War - about a third of new felony charges are for drug offenses, reports OCA - and that's your 30,000-feet-view of the scope of Lone-Star law enforcement.

Most of this apparatus has operated unregulated and unobserved for many years, not just TCOLE but definitely including it. Governor Abbott has been criticizing advocates he says want to "defund the police" (though no Texas city has actually done so). Those sort of politicized stances go a long way toward explaining why law enforcement remains an area of Texas government untouched by either fiscal-conservative parsimony or 21st-century modernization during the GOP's 20-year reign over the state legislature.

The Sunset report calls on the Legislature to accept the mantle of responsibility for regulating police and encourages them to start with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Grits agrees that's as good a place as any, if the Lege is looking for a spot to put their shovel in the ground.

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