Progress made and the work ahead: Sunset Commission and TX law enforcement

On Wednesday, the Sunset Commission met to finalize the Sunset staff’s report on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE. Adopting 16 out of the 17 recommendations before them, much of what happened represents progress on a few key issues, such as improved licensing and hiring background checks, data transparency, and minimum standards for creating new law enforcement agencies. Other developments from Sunset’s meeting point to the significant work that remains for the Legislature this session.

Previously, we discussed the Sunset Commission’s process and how it puts the regulation of law enforcement at a crossroads. For two consecutive sessions, Sunset staff said the state’s approach to regulating law enforcement was “toothless,” “fundamentally broken,” and “largely ineffective.” 

At Texas 2036, our own work and research culminated in the Texas Law Enforcement Data Landscape, a deep dive report into how TCOLE collects and manages various law enforcement data and how Texas handles so-called “wandering officers.” The Data Landscape report had over two dozen recommendations aimed at reforming how we treat wandering officers — a peace officer who is fired or resigns in lieu of getting fired and is then rehired to work at another agency — and improving the transparency, quality and utility of law enforcement data.

The Sunset Commission had the opportunity to remove, modify and create new recommendations that will make their way into a TCOLE Sunset Bill this session. Among the new issues that made it into the report, here are some positive developments from the Sunset meeting that align with the Data Landscape’s findings and recommendations.

Improved licensing and hiring checks

The Sunset Commission approved a staff recommendation directing TCOLE to work on “rap backs” — Record of Arrest and Prosecution Background — for criminal background checks for all license applicants and licensees, which will improve TCOLE’s ability to catch the kind of criminal conduct that should bar someone from obtaining or keeping their peace officer license. 

Sunset is now also recommending that statute be amended to require law enforcement agencies to consult a national law enforcement database designated by TCOLE in the hiring process. Such a database, like the National Decertification Index, would be used to check whether a potential officer has had their license or certification revoked for misconduct in another state before moving to Texas.

  • Our Data Landscape report found that more than 700 peace officers started their career outside of Texas law enforcement agencies in the past decade, and specifically recommended that agencies be required to consult the National Decertification Index.
New public database of peace officer license information 

Sunset directed TCOLE to create a “public facing, searchable database that identifies information about a peace officer’s license status …”.

  • Our report identified the vast licensee data TCOLE maintains as an opportunity for transparency. It recommended that the “Texas Legislature should support TCOLE’s creation of a public facing searchable database identifying a peace officer’s license status.”
Stronger standards for law enforcement agency creation

Sunset recommended statute be amended to develop new and improved standards for the creation of law enforcement agencies moving forward.

  • Among the first findings and recommendations in our Data Landscape report were that Texas had more law enforcement agencies than any other state and the Legislature needs to consider ways to address that. Raising standards for new agency creation — and ensuring new agencies have adequate resources and policies — is a strong start in addressing that issue.

There are a few areas where Texas lawmakers will have to put in more work:

Removing the F-5 discharge categories 

Sunset recommended certain statutes be repealed related to the F-5 employment termination report. This is a form that agency chiefs fill out whenever a peace officer leaves or “separates” from the agency that describes the nature of the separation. Specifically, the recommendation would abolish the “honorable,” “general” and “dishonorable” discharge categories, turning the F-5 into a form that simply reports a separation to TCOLE without describing how or why that separation occurred.

  • Repealing the discharge categories without replacing them would leave policymakers and the public with less information about how officers wander between agencies. Most other states require agencies to report some information about the nature and circumstances of an officer’s separation, and our Data Landscape report recommends Texas adopt neutral, descriptive reasons for separation as opposed to abolishing any notice of how or why an officer separated from an agency. Sunset nonetheless recognized that the F-5 system is broken, and we are confident this recommendation is a starting point. The Legislature needs to take the next step of developing neutral, fact-based categories of separation to ensure that TCOLE, lawmakers and stakeholders in the public can continue to monitor the wandering officers issue.
Motor vehicle stop data issues 

Because the Sunset review was limited in scope, its report didn’t tackle new issues related to TCOLE. One significant function that was left out is how TCOLE collects and maintains motor vehicle stop data reported by Texas law enforcement agencies.

  • Our Data Landscape report highlighted significant concerns with the quality and utility of this data. While it may have been outside the scope of the review, the Legislature should take steps to improve the current data collection effort while encouraging long-term planning for more robust data collection on all police stops
No recommendation for a panel or commission on law enforcement professionalism

Sunset decided against recommending the kind of “blue ribbon” panel of experts or legislative commission that would be tasked with looking at some of the biggest questions before law enforcement — professionalism and professional conduct standards, training, and education requirements — and decided to extend the agency another 12 years before a subsequent Sunset review.

  • The Sunset Commission’s primary finding, two sessions in a row, is that our state’s “approach to regulating law enforcement is ineffective.” They pointed to fundamental questions that should be answered. The Legislature can and should make progress this session on those specific issues where there are acknowledged problems and agreed upon solutions, but there are clearly deeper questions that are bigger than TCOLE’s day-to-day operations that need to be asked and answered. Whether it is in the TCOLE Sunset Bill or in separate legislation, the Legislature should establish a body to look at these things.

There will be significant work in the coming weeks and months to ensure that Texas’s regulation on law enforcement is on sound footing. Texas 2036 will be working with stakeholders and lawmakers over the 137 days to make sure it gets done.