Texas Law Enforcement at a Crossroads

The regulation of law enforcement in Texas is stuck at a crossroads, and it has been for over two years. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, is the agency charged with enforcing standards to ensure that Texans are served by highly trained and ethical law enforcement. Alongside internal personnel shuffling and high-profile tragedies both in the state and across the nation, the Sunset process presents a unique opportunity to re-evaluate how Texans are served by the oversight and regulation of law enforcement.

Before discussing this unique moment for Texas law enforcement, let’s get to know the Sunset process.

What is Sunset?

When the Legislature writes the laws creating a government agency, it almost always includes a Sunset provision, which holds that the agency is subject to the “Sunset Act” and will be abolished by a certain date (which rarely actually happens). When an agency is up for review, it triggers a process by which a special legislative agency called the Sunset Advisory Commission begins evaluating it.  This Commission consists of twelve members appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House — five  senators, five representatives and two members of the public — with work supported by Sunset staff, the majority of whom are policy analysts.

The Sunset review begins about two years before the agency could be abolished under law, and analysts and staff at the Sunset Commission spend months poring over the agency. Sunset staff consult the agency’s mission and purpose against its laws, regulations and policies to see what’s working, what’s not and whether the agency should continue existing. This intense Sunset review happens for most state agencies in Texas once a decade.

At the end of the review, the Sunset staff release a report which lays out their findings and makes recommendations for how to improve the agency if they don’t decide to abolish it. The members of the Sunset Commission then meet and vote on what recommendations from the report they want to adopt, as well as any other recommendations they see fit to include. A final report is forwarded to the Legislature ahead of the next session, and then an omnibus Sunset Bill is drafted that implements the recommendations to the agency and extends its life another ten years before the next Sunset review.

Where does TCOLE fit in?

TCOLE was under Sunset review in 2020, and the TCOLE Sunset report that was released ahead of the Legislature meeting in 2021 was uniquely frank in its assessment. The report said that the regulatory framework for law enforcement in Texas was “toothless” and “fundamentally broken.” In short, the regime created by the Legislature left TCOLE unable to do basic things that Texans would expect a regulatory agency to do.

The process continued with the adoption of recommendations and the drafting of a TCOLE Sunset bill. But that bill met substantial opposition and failed to pass. To keep the agency from being abolished, the Legislature passed another bill that extended the agency another two years and told the Sunset Commission staff to do another “limited-scope review.” This meant that the staff’s report could only reconsider whether the recommendations it made before were appropriate or not.

Even with this limitation, Sunset staff can still contribute valuable research to the Commission and the public that builds on what was drafted in 2020. While the staff can’t generate brand new recommendations, the appointed Commission members themselves can.

The bigger picture

Even with fundamental questions for the regulatory structure still looming, significant changes have been made since 2020. 

  1. TCOLE has taken steps to implement some of the 2020 Sunset Report recommendations that don’t require new laws from the Legislature. 
  2. The Legislature passed other bills addressing officer wellness, improved hiring practices and use of force policies are already reshaping how law enforcement is regulated and supported at the state level.

Other developments since 2020 shape this moment for not only TCOLE but the law enforcement community more broadly. 

Internally, TCOLE is seeing multiple high-level staff changes, chief among them is TCOLE’s longtime Executive Director Kim Vickers, who is retiring after 10 years at the helm of the agency and 43 years of law enforcement service. This and other internal departures and promotions are coinciding with intense scrutiny in the Sunset process and a turbulent public moment.

There also are also issues that demand attention that fall outside the scope of the recommendations made by the last Sunset report. 

  1. As a result of the law enforcement response to the Robb Elementary shooting, there are calls to change how peace officers are trained — an issue at the core of TCOLE’s mission. 
  2. Even with meaningful legislation passed, there are still gaps in the rules that are meant to deal with “wandering officers” — those who leave a record of misconduct at one agency only to get rehired by another. 
  3. The entire data landscape of law enforcement must be reassessed so that policymakers and the public have actionable information to improve and support law enforcement in its mission.

The repeated scrutiny from the Texas Sunset Commission, the change in key personnel at TCOLE and the shortcomings exposed in critical incidents and recent tragedies represent a turbulent period for the regulation of law enforcement in Texas. However, this critical moment is also an opportunity not only to improve a state agency but to ask fundamental questions about the kind of oversight and regulation that best serves Texans. Answers to these questions can set up TCOLE for success in achieving its basic mission and inspire trust and confidence in Texas law enforcement. With the right resources, TCOLE and Texas could become an example to other states on how to effectively regulate one of the most important and consequential professions.

Interested in more Justice & Safety issues? Check out Luis Soberon’s take on what President Biden’s recent policing Executive Order means for Texas law enforcement.

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