“The regulation of law enforcement in Texas is stuck at a crossroads.”
Those are the opening words from a report recently published by the nonprofit Texas 2036 organization. Those words also provide the start of an answer to a question I posed in a headline atop my most recent column: Why do cops with dubious track records keep finding new jobs?
The report by policy adviser Luis Soberon offers insights into needed changes at the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), the agency that oversees the licensing and training of the state’s 78,295 peace officers working in one of 2,729 law enforcement agencies recognized by TCOLE.
Texas has an outdated system for organizing and registering a law enforcement entity, with small county courts and district attorneys registering individual agencies. According to TCOLE data provided by Texas 2036, there are currently 185 registered agencies that have zero peace officers, 540 agencies with a single peace officer, 674 with two to five officers, and 414 agencies with six to 10 peace officers. Those small entities that in other states would be wrapped into larger law enforcement agencies account for more than 1,800 of the agencies overseen by TCOLE.
The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which every decade reviews the status and efficacy of state agencies, released a report in advance of the 2021 legislative session that called TCOLE “fundamentally broken” and “toothless,” and made a number of recommendations that largely were set aside by legislators and not acted on.
Instead, the commission was asked to review its own recommendations and issue a new report, expected in the next two months. The public is invited to submit comments here.
The report notes that TCOLE staff is failing to address “wandering officers,” individuals who lose jobs at one law enforcement agency only to be hired by another agency. It’s common knowledge among police chiefs and others I’ve spoken with that police unions routinely appeal the “dishonorable discharge” of a police officer to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), where those dismissals are often reversed or mitigated.
TCOLE itself does not gather or disseminate any data about officers terminated for excessive use of force or other serious offenses. The public and media are unable to glean anything about the number of terminated officers or their employment status from agency data.
Politics also influence agency work. Gov. Greg Abbott recently appointed Justin Berry, one of 19 Austin police officers indicted on charges of using excessive force against people protesting the murder of George Floyd, to a position at TCOLE. Abbott endorsed Berry earlier this year in his unsuccessful Republican primary bid for Texas House District 19, saying his “strong conservative values and experience stopping violent crime are exactly what we need in the Texas House.”
Berry’s first TCOLE hearing as a newly appointed commissioner will take place on Oct. 26. Four days later, he will be in a Travis County district court as a police officer under indictment for excessive use of force, a violent crime.
There currently are more than 1,100 appeal cases pending with the OAH, according to data found via its F-5 Hearings web page. Law enforcement agencies issue F-5 reports to departing officers that are filed with TCOLE that include an honorable discharge, a general discharge or a dishonorable discharge. The general discharge, officials say, indicates a resignation usually in lieu of a termination, while the dishonorable discharge is given in actual terminations.
“In many cases, a chief will agree to issue an honorable discharge just to get a resignation and to get rid of a problem officer,” said one source familiar with the process.
Senate Bill 24, passed in the last legislative session, came in response to the Sunset Commission recommendations and mandates that hiring agencies check into the past records of police applicants. Failure to do so can result in a loss of license by the hiring official. The bill does little, however, to strengthen TCOLE, increase its staffing and funding or to strengthen its authority to suspend peace officer licenses.
Officers like former University of the Incarnate Word police officer Christopher Carter are hired and let go over and over, yet continue to find employment. Carter, currently unemployed and facing a wrongful death civil trial along with UIW in September for the December 2013 off-campus killing of honors student Cameron Redus, has held 13 different law enforcement jobs, many of them lasting only months. Yet he remains a licensed peace officer with an honorable discharge from UIW and at least two other subsequent employers.
UIW did not conduct a background check before hiring Carter or even ask in his interview about the circumstances surrounding his termination from a previous police job, according to deposition testimony in the civil lawsuit.
Uvalde school police chief Pete Arredondo is now under fire for failing to act to confront an active shooter who massacred 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School on May 24. He also has worked for multiple law enforcement agencies, and while information is now surfacing about his inability to hold leadership positions at previous jobs, he was readily hired to head up the district’s small police force. Even if he resigns his current post under pressure, he likely will be given an honorable discharge.
Like Carter, he’ll be free to join whichever Texas law enforcement agency is willing to hire him next, despite his record.