AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sunset Advisory Commission members expressed concern over the drawn-out, years-long process of reforming the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, but they did appear to agree on a few changes they could push in the upcoming legislative session, according to testimony and discussion at a commission hearing Tuesday.
Lawmakers have struggled to pass statutory changes to the TCOLE, amid tensions with law enforcement groups — including police unions — over how much power the agency should wield over officers. Presently, it has almost none. A Sunset Advisory Commission report released in November described the agency as “toothless.”
The lawmakers did appear to agree on several changes that could give TCOLE more oversight power. Fixes could be coming to police separation reports, standards to create new departments, funding and more. No action was taken at the meeting.
Review after review
TCOLE oversees the licensing of Texas peace officers. The agency has been under Sunset Advisory Commission review for years. The bipartisan and bicameral 12-member Sunset Advisory Commission periodically reviews state agencies, identifies ways to cut waste and inefficiency and the agencies are abolished if lawmakers elect not to continue them.
The “limited scope” report released in November followed a similar but more expansive full review completed for the last legislative session in 2021.
The 2021 full review recommended a slew of improvements and the establishment of a “blue ribbon panel” to “comprehensively review” TCOLE’s functions and recommend more improvements. A bill to put the statutory recommendations of the full review into law failed in 2021, and the blue-ribbon panel was never formed. Instead, a separate bill to continue TCOLE for two more years was passed and the Sunset Advisory Commission was told to perform another limited-scope review.
‘Gig is up’
Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said while he “loves cops” he’s also frustrated with the lack of action on items that could remove bad police officers from the ranks. Perry didn’t appear interested in a recent recommendation to revive efforts to create a blue-ribbon panel for yet another review of TCOLE.
“The gig is up on another blue-ribbon panel,” said Perry. “It is kick the can, kick the can, kick the can.”
“My sense, from my constituents, is there is a growing sense of impatience,” said Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.
Several legislators and experts who testified agreed on a few important changes that could be tackled in the upcoming legislative session starting in January.
When officers leave a job, their department completes an F-5 report – a sheet that indicates why the officer left and whether they were honorably or dishonorably discharged. The F-5 reports need to be revamped to improve transparency, several speakers said. Also, rules should be amended that have allowed thousands of tiny police departments to be created with little oversight. The commission also showed interest in pushing for more money for TCOLE, which lags far behind similar states in funding, according to Luis Soberon, a policy analyst with Texas 2036 who testified at the hearing.
Soberon provided a stark assessment of Texas’ F-5 form.
“The F-5 system is fundamentally not working,” Soberon told lawmakers.
Texas 2036 is a nonprofit, bipartisan policy group that released a lengthy report on TCOLE’s shortfalls, including the F-5.
F-5 reports are confidential, and they don’t provide a clear picture of why an officer left their last posting. Texas 2036 recommends making the F-5 public and redefining the types of discharges, including the dishonorable discharge category. The dishonorable discharge category “does not distinguish between insubordinate backtalk and violent criminal conduct,” according to the 2036 report.
Soberon said reforming the F-5 form could help correct a major problem in the state: so-called “wandering officers.” These are police officers with histories of misconduct who migrate from department to department causing problems without losing their license, the study found.
In the past 10 years, more than 1,400 peace officers have been rehired after being dishonorably discharged. Those officers tended to drift to smaller and more rural departments, according to TCOLE records obtained by Texas 2036.
“It is a worthless document,” Hawthorne said.
TCOLE also needs to “drastically improve the collection of motor vehicle stop data,” which has “been plagued with quality problems for years” and lacks vital information, according to Texas 2036’s report.
“Bad data quality obscures real problems that should be scrutinized and it makes good agencies look bad,” Texas 2036 states in its report.
Texas 2036’s report references a 2021 KXAN investigation that discovered TCOLE failed to collect comparative analyses of racial profiling data from law enforcement departments for the past 10 years and chose not to use its enforcement authority. Legislators and members of the law enforcement community also raised alarms about the number of police departments popping up across Texas.
“The legislature needs to get a grip on the creation of law enforcement agencies,” Hawthorne said. “We don’t need to be creating one- and two-man police departments.”
The Texas 2036 report reached a similar conclusion. TCOLE is less funded, yet it oversees more law enforcement agencies than similarly sized states. Texas has more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies, compared to just over 600 in California and fewer than 350 in Florida, according to the 2036 report.
Most of Texas’ departments have only a handful of officers, according to testimony.
Meanwhile, TCOLE has less resources than both California and Florida’s equivalent agencies. TCOLE had an annual budget of $5.92 million in fiscal year 2022, while California had over $110 million, and Florida had $17 million.
“We’ve got to quit trying to provide law enforcement to the citizens of Texas on an economy plan,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Officers Association. TMPA is one of the largest police unions in the state and represents over 30,000 officers, according to its website.
Lawrence said law enforcement is one of the best professions at policing its own, and the men and women of law enforcement are almost all “good, decent, honest, hardworking people trying to do the right thing.” However, “there are bad apples.”
Lawrence said his organization supports changes to TCOLE.
“Don’t wait until the end of session. Make it happen right now,” Lawrence said. “Let’s get started. Let’s get busy. Let’s start addressing some of these issues.”