Texas police reform bill killed by its own author

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (KXAN) – It took exactly four seconds for Rep. John Cyrier, a Lockhart Republican, to kill his own bill during a floor debate Wednesday. Cyrier’s bill would’ve likely reformed the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement into a regulatory agency with the power to investigate peace officers accused of misconduct.

Cyrier, who chairs the Sunset Advisory Commission, spent the past few months trying to push his TCOLE Sunset reform bill through the legislature.

“Members, I intend to pull this bill down. But I am committed to each of you that we will continue this conversation during the interim,” Cyrier announced from the House floor.

Rep. John Cyrier authored the bill that would’ve provided TCOLE more authority to regulate state law enforcement (Source: TX House of Representatives)

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission spent 4,000 hours in 2020 digging into TCOLE, looking for waste and other inefficiencies within the state’s law enforcement oversight agency.

The review found TCOLE was “toothless” in its statutory ability to regulate law enforcement.

Cyrier’s HB 1550, if passed as filed, would have given TCOLE the power to investigate and subpoena its licensees.

TCOLE currently commissions law enforcement certifications for 115,000 peace officers, jailers and telecommunicators across the state. But the agency has no authority to revoke a peace officer certification without a criminal conviction of a felony or high-level misdemeanor.

Meaning: TCOLE has no authority to sanction officers accused of misconduct or unethical policing. The impact of lawmakers restricting TCOLE from that regulatory authority was exposed in our KXAN investigation ‘Bargaining the Badge.’

That investigation found hundreds of permanent licenses surrenders from criminally accused Texas peace officers who entered into plea agreements with district attorneys. The plea agreements allowed officers to use their peace officer licenses to make deals with prosecutors to avoid prison sentences.

Our review of 444 permanent surrenders found some 80% of officers never spent a day in jail.

Unless amended during the House or Senate floor action, Cyrier’s bill still would not have given TCOLE the authority to sanction for less than a conviction if passed this session. Cyrier’s bill instead handed the responsibility of creating that legislation to a “blue ribbon panel.” The bill would have given the panel nine months to make recommendations for the legislature to consider.

The panel’s recommendations would have been due to the legislature in June 2022, which means any substantive change to TCOLE’s authority to sanction peace officers for misconduct wouldn’t have happened until lawmakers meet again in 2023.

Our Bargaining the Badge investigation looked at the authority other states’ versions of TCOLE had to sanction licensees for less than a criminal conviction. We examined all license surrenders and revocations between 2015 and 2020. During that time, TCOLE accepted 444 voluntary permanent license surrenders, which is a lifetime ban from working in law enforcement.

During that five-year span, Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council revoked 3,648 peace officers licenses. Georgia lawmakers, unlike Texas, granted its POST the power to suspend and revoke licenses for less than a criminal conviction.

“We are very fortunate in Georgia that we do have this power. But in the same in the same regard, we got to be very cautious about that because we certainly don’t want to misuse that authority and to sanction an officer undeserving or inappropriately,” POST Executive Director Mike Ayers told KXAN.

Ayers spent 30 years as an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, that state’s version of the Texas Rangers.

“Georgia leads the nation in the total number of officers who are decertified every year. In fact, Georgia and two other states, Florida, in North Carolina, were responsible for 50% of all the certifications across the nation,” Ayers told KXAN. “That’s not to say that we have bad officers. I think it says we have extremely high standards. And the result of that is, I truly believe that we provide very good law enforcement services to the community, the communities within our state.”

Georgia’s POST also provides its officers with an extensive appeals process. Once POST initiates an investigation, the agency then decided the punishment against the officer. If an officer disagrees with the punishment, he can appeal.

Georgia POST Director Mike Ayers praised the Georgia legislature for granting his agency power to sanction peace officers there for committing misconduct (Credit: State of Georgia)

In our review of Georgia’s appeals, we found since 2015, 636 officers filed appeals contesting a POST decision and 506 appeals were successful resulting in an officer having the POST decision on his license reversed or amended.

“That is one of the reasons why we have such an extensive appeal process in place, so that when our council does decide to sanction that officer does have the right to appeal that and go through a very lengthy process to be heard,” Ayers said. “I think that goes a long ways toward helping to assure the officers that we’re fair and impartial as well.”

Cyrier told lawmakers that work on the Sunset bill is not done and they’ll push it to next session.

Without legislators approving a Sunset bill, it could mean the end of an agency under Sunset review. However, Cyrier said plans to give TCOLE an extension through the 2023 session is already in the works.

One of the state’s largest police unions, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, known as CLEAT opposed the bill from the first committee hearing.

Jennifer Szimanski, of CLEAT Public Affairs, argued policing Texas law enforcement should be left up to the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety; two entities that routinely investigate crimes committed by peace officers. CLEAT argued the funding required to expand TCOLE’s authority would be better spend on training for licensees.

“All of the legislation we see this session is a direct attack on working cops and as punitive in nature. And this bill is no different,” Szimanski said. “TCOLE was designed and should continue to be the agency that oversees licensing and training.”

“CLEAT is opposed to giving TCOLE this authorization and believes this is overreach and local authorities have the ability and are currently exercising this in those extreme cases mentioned. Additionally, every person that receives a license from the State of Texas through the licensing mechanism deserves due process before their ability to earn a living is taken from them. This recommendation will lead innocent individuals to being unfairly targeted,” CLEAT Executive Director Charley Wilkison wrote in a letter opposing Cyrier’s bill.

CLEAT posted to its website a full response on why it opposed Cyrier’s bill.

The state’s other large police union did not oppose the bill and told lawmakers the Texas Municipal Police Association liked the expanded authority contained in Cyrier’s reform bill — although TMPA acknowledged that much improvement needs to be made to TCOLE.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission released a report in January 2021 describing TCOLE as “toothless” in its ability to effectively regulate Texas law enforcement.

TMPA Executive Director Kevin Lawrence later told KXAN his association would also support giving TCOLE the authority to sanction officers for less than a criminal conviction so long as due process rights were guaranteed for those accused and lawmakers detailed exactly how misconduct would be defined.

“We have said this forever: nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop. And being a bad cop is not limited to just committing criminal offenses,” Lawrence told KXAN. “There are some people who are just not cut out for this business.”

Cyrier told lawmakers that although he decided to kill his bill for now, the Sunset Advisory Commission’s 4,000 hours of work, 69 meetings, and 11,647 survey responses were not a waste.

“That hasn’t been lost,” he said. “I don’t want members to feel like just because this bill is not moving forward that all that hard work has been lost. We’ve gained a lot out of that. We’ve had some good other bills that have been produced off the work that this Sunset process has made and that’s what it’s all about.”

Cyrier asked to postpone further action on his bill until June 3. That postponement would likely contain a motion to continue TCOLE through the 2023 session.

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