Legislature may reverse bad-faith police firings and create a database of officers

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers from the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission voted Wednesday to approve new recommendations to reform the Texas Law Enforcement Commission, which oversees law enforcement licensing. Recommendations include abolishing dishonorable discharges, higher standards for creating new departments, offering an online searchable database of officers, and more.

TCOLE has been under the control of the Sunset Commission for many years and has been double-checked by the agency in that time. All this time, legislators have been puzzling over how to update TCOLE, but have made only a few changes.

Louis Soberon, policy advisor for Texas 2036, said the recommendations will address key issues. Texas 2036 – a non-profit and non-partisan group – has produced an extensive report on shortcomings in Texas’ oversight of police departments. The report identified improvements needed in TCOLE and was presented to the Zakat Commission during its review.

“The Sunset Commission has taken some really positive steps in what we do with law enforcement data and what we do in the recruitment process,” Soberon told KXAN. “Much has yet to be decided, and the legislature has a lot of work to do on some of the most important issues related to how we regulate law enforcement in Texas. It’s going to be a very busy 140 days.”

The recommendations, approved on Wednesday, are not yet law. They will most likely be included in the bill, which will also include language to allow TCOLE to continue as an agency.

Elimination of unscrupulous discharge and other recommendations

Senator Charles Schwertner, D-Georgetown, chairman of the Sunset Commission, recommended that TCOLE be required to consult with an advisory committee to set and enforce minimum standards for law enforcement. The standards will require new departments to show “sustainable” sources of TCOLE funding and the physical resources available to officers based on the number of officers hired, according to the Sunset Commission meeting.

Soberon said the current demands for a police agency have been “beaten”. The lack of standards has led to a proliferation of “micro” law enforcement agencies, some with only one or two officers, he said. According to the Texas 2036 Report, Texas has over 2,600 law enforcement agencies, more than any other state.

All these departments complicate control. The proposed standards will give TCOLE a stronger hand in refusing to create a department, he said.

“As opposed to a simple notice that we are creating a new agency, this is more like a statement that can be rejected if they do not meet the standards for creating an agency,” Soberon said.

Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has recommended removing the discharge categories from Form F-5, which is a sheet that is filled out when an officer leaves office. Forms F-5 are currently categorized into Honorary, General, and Infamous. Perry recommended that they be removed so that only the date the officer was fired would appear on the F-5 form. Perry’s rule would also remove the sections of the law relating to the suspension of a dishonorably discharged officer’s license and the motion to amend the record, as there would no longer be a dishonorable discharge according to the Sunset Commission’s reports.

The recommendations do not provide for an alternative system for reporting dishonest dismissal, so “the legislature has some work to do to replace this system with a better one,” Soberon said.

State Representative Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, recommended that TCOLE create a public, searchable online database showing the training history and license status of Texas peace officers. Such a database would put law enforcement officers on a par with other licensed professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, whose basic licensing information is available online.

Senator Nathan Johnson, Dallas, recommended that law enforcement check the national law enforcement database prior to hiring and prior to issuing a license. TCOLE will designate law enforcement databases to be used for pre-employment background checks.

Soberon said the National Dessertification Index would be a likely choice for the database. NDI is supported by the International Association of Law Enforcement Standards and Training Directors. It currently has over 33,500 actions reported by 46 law enforcement certification agencies.

Requiring departments to consult NDI or a similar database could help address the problem of “roving officers” that Texas 2036 addressed in its report. Rogue officers are law enforcement officers with a history of misconduct who bounce from one department or state to another.

Senator Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, recommended that the statutory deadlines for all continuing education requirements be removed for all TCOLE licensees and that the deadlines be aligned with established learning cycles.

Vehicle data

The Sunset Commission made no recommendations to improve the vehicle stop data collected by TCOLE. The Texas 2036 report and the KXAN research identified several weaknesses in the data.

Experts told KXAN that the state’s data collection is insufficient to detect bias in police work, and KXAN found that TCOLE was not complying with departmental reporting requirements for their data analysis.

Following the KXAN report, TCOLE achieved 100 percent compliance with the racial profiling report, according to the agency.

Soberon said the legislature should “necessarily” consider adding data collection improvements to the Sunset Commission bill so that “we have high-quality, accurate, and transparent data on how vehicle stops are conducted in Texas.”

The recommendations will be included in the bill, but this does not mean that they will become law. All bills are discussed and amended frequently as they go through.

The approval of the recommendations “is an important milestone, but by no means the end of the road for the Senate process,” Soberon said.

The Sunset Commission decided to remove the recommendation to establish a “law enforcement professionalism blue ribbon panel” that would make recommendations on professional standards for law enforcement. In two TCOLE reviews, the Sunset Commission recommended the creation of a blue ribbon panel.

Soberon said the blue ribbon panel was intended to answer “general questions” such as whether the state should develop new training, how to hold licensees accountable, and best practices. Without a commission, the Zakat Commission expressed its “trust and faith” to the Legislative Assembly to find a way to resolve these issues.

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