New police departments halted due to coronavirus restrictions

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – UPDATE:

Since publishing this report, KXAN has learned the Governor’s Office granted an exception to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to conduct final inspections of new police departments, which will allow those departments to open. Kim Vickers, executive director of TCOLE, said the inspections should begin the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Abbott’s office made the policy change within a day after KXAN began asking questions of his office, TCOLE and local jurisdictions.

“We are back into rescheduling those appointments and going out to approve those agencies, and we will be getting some movement on that with the exception that was granted to us by the Governor’s office,” Vickers said Thursday afternoon.

ORIGINAL REPORT:

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Nearly a dozen newly formed Texas police departments can’t open until they get a final inspection from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement — and those onsite visits have been halted by an order from the governor’s office, according to TCOLE.

TCOLE Executive Director Kim Vickers said his agency, which regulates law enforcement agencies statewide, stopped roughly 98% of its field work due to the coronavirus pandemic. Vickers said there are currently 11 police departments, including eight for school districts, that are awaiting final inspection.

“As soon as the governor sees that it is an appropriate time to start relaxing the travel restrictions then we will get people out to do that right away, but we have curtailed travel at the governor’s directions,” Vickers said by phone Tuesday afternoon.

On Thursday at noon, John Wittman, Gov. Greg Abbott’s director of communications, said he thought there “had been movement on this.” KXAN contacted TCOLE Thursday afternoon for more information on any changes to the current policy, and we will update this report when more information becomes available.

All 11 jurisdictions currently have police coverage of some kind, whether it be a constable, sheriff or state police, he said. The jurisdictions are located all over the state, from Flour Bluff ISD on the Gulf Coast, to City of Pine Forest in East Texas, to Seymour ISD in North Texas.

“They are waiting on a very specific PD. Every one of them had coverage before they applied for a PD,” Vickers told KXAN. “They want to expand coverage, and I can understand that, and have a more personalized coverage.”

Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the directive to halt onsite inspections seemed to contradict the governor’s recent statement that summer schools would be safe to open.

“The faster the departments are up and running, the better and the safer the school will be,” Wilkison said. “If it is safe for the kids to return in person, I don’t see why it would not be safe for these state workers to come out and do this quick inspection, so they can open up.”

Vickers said the departments could take care of nearly every aspect of preparing to open and once the final inspection is completed and approved they could get their department identification number immediately and begin operations quickly.

Most of the new departments are in school districts. Vickers said there has been an influx of new school police departments since a spate of school shootings in recent years. In May of 2018, a teenager opened fire in Santa Fe High School south of Houston, killing 10 people and wounding 10 more.

Manor ISD said it is ready to be inspected and continues to buy equipment to make a quick transition and open once the TCOLE walkthrough is complete, according to director of communications Angel Vidal Jr.

“Although the district has suspended normal school operations until further notice due to COVID-19, a timely opening of our police department would allow our future officers to gain district familiarity, to complete mandated or other training before school resumes as well as to offer a level of security for district student, staff and property that does not currently exist,” Vidal said.

Cooper ISD Superintendent Denicia Hohenberger said her district, which is about 80 miles northeast of Dallas, is also ready for its walkthrough.

“We are ready for our TCOLE visit and we very much desire to complete that process before the school year begins. Once the visit is complete, we believe our preparations will allow us to quickly become operational for our department,” Hohenberger said in an email. “However, we do have an existing back-up plan as we presently employ a full-time officer commissioned by the county. Our intention is to continue this arrangement until TCOLE approves our own department, whenever that may be. Whether by county commissioned officer(s) or our own department, we are committed to providing a safe environment for students and staff.”

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