AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lawmakers with the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission voted to approve new recommendations Wednesday to reform the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees peace officer licensing. The recommendations include eliminating dishonorable discharges, higher standards for creating new departments, offering a searchable database of officers online and more.

TCOLE has been under Sunset Commission review for years and has been audited twice by the agency in that time. All the while, lawmakers have wrestled with how to revamp TCOLE but made few changes.

Luis Soberon, a policy advisor with Texas 2036, said the recommendations would address key issues. Texas 2036 – a nonprofit and nonpartisan group – created an extensive report about shortfalls in Texas’ oversight of police departments. The report identified improvements needed at TCOLE, and it was submitted to the Sunset Commission during its review.

“Sunset Commission made some really positive moves in what we do with law enforcement data and what we do in the hiring process for new officers,” Soberon told KXAN. “There is a lot left on the table, and the legislature has a lot of work before it on some of the biggest questions confronting how we regulate law enforcement in Texas. It will be a very busy 140 days.”

The recommendations approved Wednesday aren’t law, yet. They will likely be rolled into a bill that will also include language to continue TCOLE as an agency.

Eliminating the dishonorable discharge and other recommendations

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Sunset Commission, recommended requiring TCOLE to consult with an advisory committee to set and enforce minimum standards for law enforcement agencies. The standards would require new departments to show TCOLE “sustainable” funding sources and physical resources available to officers based on the number of officers employed, according to the Sunset Commission meeting materials.

Soberon said the current requirements to create a police agency are “threadbare.” The lack of standards has led to the proliferation of “micro” law enforcement agencies, some with just one or two officers, he said. Texas has more than 2,600 law enforcement agencies, the most of any state, according to Texas 2036’s report.

All those departments make oversight more difficult. The proposed standards would give TCOLE a stronger hand in denying a department from forming, he said.

“As opposed to simply notice that we’re creating a new agency, it’s more like an application that can be denied, if they don’t meet the standards to create the agency,” Soberon said.

Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, recommended eliminating separation categories from the F-5 form, which is a sheet that’s filled out when an officer leaves their post. F-5 forms currently have separation categories of honorable, general and dishonorable. Perry recommended removing those, so the F-5 form would only indicate the date an officer left employment. Perry’s rule would also remove sections of the law related to suspending the license of a dishonorably discharged officer and petitioning to correct a report, since the dishonorable discharge would no longer exist, according to Sunset Commission records.

The recommendations don’t provide an alternative system for reporting dishonorable separations, so “the legislature is going to have some work to do in replacing it with a better system,” Soberon said.

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

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, recommended requiring law enforcement agencies to review a national law enforcement database prior to hiring and before a license is issued. TCOLE would designate the law enforcement databases that would be used for pre-employment background checks.

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

Requiring departments to consult the NDI, or a similar database, could help alleviate the “wandering officers” problem, which Texas 2036 examined in its report. Wandering officers are peace officers with histories of misconduct who bounce from one department or state to another.

Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, recommended removing statutory deadlines for all TCOLE licensees’ continuing education requirements and aligning deadlines with established training cycles.

Motor vehicle data

The Sunset Commission didn’t make recommendations about improving motor vehicle stop data collected by TCOLE. Texas 2036’s report – and investigations by KXAN – have identified several flaws in the data.

Experts told KXAN the state’s data collection is inadequate for finding bias in policing, and KXAN discovered TCOLE wasn’t enforcing the requirement for departments to submit an analysis of their data.

Since KXAN’s reporting, TCOLE has obtained 100% compliance with racial profiling reporting, according to the agency.

Soberon said the legislature should “absolutely” consider adding data collection improvements to the Sunset Commission’s bill, so “we can have high quality, accurate transparent data on how motor vehicle stops are conducted in Texas.”

The recommendations will make their way into a bill, but that doesn’t mean they will become law. All bills are debated and often amended during the passage process.

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

The Sunset Commission opted to remove a recommendation to create a “blue ribbon panel on law enforcement professionalism” that would make recommendations on professional standards for law enforcement. Two Sunset Commission reviews of TCOLE recommended creating the blue ribbon panel.

Soberon said the blue ribbon panel was intended to answer “big picture questions,” like whether the state should develop new training, how to handle licensee accountability and best practices. Without the panel, the Sunset Commission has put its “trust and faith” in the Legislature to find a way to handle those questions.