TX2036 study shows gaps in law enforcement data

Findings point to the need for investments in basic data infrastructure at Texas’ agency overseeing law enforcement and reforms in how local departments handle the hiring and firing of officers.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) oversees more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies, 78,500 peace officers, 22,300 county jailors and 8,800 telecommunicators (dispatchers), and yet lacks a comprehensive data infrastructure that would lead to more public transparency, trust and safety.  

This was the key finding of the new Texas Law Enforcement Data Landscape report released by Texas 2036 in advance of the Sunset Advisory Commission’s staff recommendations for TCOLE, which are expected to be released on Thursday, Nov. 17.  

This year marks the second consecutive sunset review of TCOLE by the Texas Sunset Commission. In its 2020 report, the Commission concluded that Texas’ approach to  regulating law enforcement was “largely ineffective,” “toothless” and “fundamentally broken.” The 2020 report found that one-quarter of TCOLE licensees that received a dishonorable discharge were rehired at another law enforcement agency.  However, the proposed TCOLE Sunset bill failed to pass the Legislature in 2021,  leading to the current Sunset Review process in 2022-2023.  

Public safety is a necessary ingredient for Texas’ prosperity and success,” said  Margaret Spellings, president and CEO of Texas 2036. “Our law enforcement officers,  and the Texans they serve and protect, deserve a regulatory agency that effectively  supports and oversees this vital profession. Lawmakers and stakeholders need a strong  foundation based on data to build an effective regulatory structure.”

Over the interim, Texas 2036 partnered with Benchmark Analytics, a company specializing in law enforcement data management, to develop the Texas Law Enforcement Data Landscape. The resulting report further explored the “wandering officer” issue (when fired, peace officers get rehired at another agency) and compared  TCOLE to other states’ law enforcement oversight. It also explored other law enforcement data issues, such as motor vehicle stops. 

This comprehensive report found that Texas law enforcement agencies rehired at least 1,401 dishonorably discharged peace officers over the past decade. These rehires are concentrated in smaller agencies and more sparsely populated communities  in Texas. Within the report, Texas 2036 also made a wide-ranging series of recommendations to the Legislature that include: 

  • Increase transparency and reform in “F-5” separation reports – how Texas handles “wandering officers”; 
  • Offer a public-facing database of agency and officer information and statistics; ● Provide better investments in TCOLE’s data infrastructure to catch data errors;  and 
  • Improve standards dramatically for reporting and maintaining motor vehicle stop  data. 

The report’s more than 25 findings and accompanying recommendations are laid out across five parts: 

1) Comparisons to peer states: TCOLE oversees more departments while  receiving disproportionately fewer funds than agencies in other states. In  addition, Texas law has different, and often lower, requirements than these  other states in areas such as hiring officers from out-of-state or publicly  reporting officer misconduct. 

2) The challenge of “wandering officers”: A “wandering officer” is a peace officer who’s fired for cause from one law enforcement agency and then gets  rehired at another. TCOLE’s Notice of Separation (F-5) report and the  accompanying systems for wandering officers are inadequate. They hinder law enforcement’s and the public’s ability to review agency practices and  individual officers’ complete employment histories — particularly as  wandering officers move between agencies. 

3) Data to support oversight and regulations: TCOLE collects and manages  the licensing and employment of personnel at the agencies it oversees, but  reasons for revoked, canceled and suspended officer licenses are not easily identifiable

4) Motor vehicle stop data: The information reported to TCOLE from agencies  on motor vehicle stops is unreliable and largely unusable for identifying  problematic policing practices. Texas needs more precise data-quality guidelines and standards that would help the state move toward actionable,  incident-based, micro-level data and more complex statistical techniques. 

5) Comprehensive data and reporting systems: TCOLE has the opportunity to  enhance its data infrastructure to improve services to law enforcement agencies and officers and public access to crucial information. TCOLE should accept public input on how data is shared, including through surveys, public  meetings and open public comment periods. 

A critical finding of the report focuses on the system law enforcement agencies follow to  report an officer is leaving. In Texas, a Chief fills out an F-5 report any time an officer leaves the agency, and gives the officer a “discharge.” The discharge categories are:  

  1. Honorably Discharged (in good standing); 
  2. Generally Discharged (documented disciplinary or performance problem); and  (3) Dishonorably Discharged (criminal misconduct, insubordination, or  untruthfulness).  

A discharged officer can also appeal the Chief’s determination for their dismissal. The Data Landscape finds that these appeals by fired officers are usually successful  — sometimes because the agency that filed the F-5 did not participate in the  proceeding. 

The F-5 report is confidential and made available only to TCOLE, the Chief who fills out  the report, the officer and any agency doing a background check on the officer during the hiring process. Of the 18,049 F-5 reports that are filed each year across Texas on  average, 527, or 2.9%, are dishonorable discharges. A dishonorably discharged peace officer is still licensed and eligible to be rehired unless they receive a second  dishonorable discharge. 

Texas has an opportunity to make significant improvements to the regulation of law enforcement,” said Luis Soberon, policy advisor for Texas 2036. “The men and women  who serve Texans every day deserve a regulatory structure rooted in good data,  transparency and accountability. This report helps set the stage for how Texas can address wandering officers, motor vehicle stop data deficiencies and other pressing  issues. We stand ready to provide information to lawmakers as they review these issues  and recommendations.” 

In September, the 5th Texas Voter Poll found a majority of Texas voters supported the  state taking many of the actions outlined in Texas Law Enforcement Data Landscape.  While 68% of Texas voters said they trust their local law enforcement, 83% say it would  increase their confidence in law enforcement if lawmakers made it harder to rehire law  enforcement officers who were previously fired for poor conduct. 57% said it would  increase their confidence “a lot.” 73% support giving the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement more authority to collect information and enforce disciplinary actions in  cases of serious misconduct from licensed peace officers; just 14% oppose this policy.

“Texas 2036 is working to fully understand how data systems can improve justice and  safety and support the important work our law enforcement agencies are doing,” said  Holly Heard, PhD, vice president of data and analytics at Texas 2036. “Clear and  transparent data help build public trust in institutions.” 

For more information, visit www.texas2036.org/TCOLE