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Combined Law Enforcement Agencies of Texas

Let’s fix the Sandra Bland Act

Let’s make it what it was supposed to have been in the first place.

Sandra Bland

After Sandra Bland’s death in a rural Texas jail drew outrage across the nation, two Texas lawmakers filed a comprehensive bill to address racial profiling during traffic stops, ban police from stopping drivers on a traffic violation as a pretext to investigate other potential crimes, limit police searches of vehicles and other jail and policing reforms.

But by the time the Legislature passed it, most of the sweeping provisions related to policing had been stripped out.

Now, on the heels of the death of George Floyd, those lawmakers say they’re determined to try again to push those reforms through when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021.

State Sen. John Whitmire and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, both Houston Democrats who chair relevant committees in their respective chambers, said in a joint news release Tuesday they would continue to work together on criminal justice reform efforts next year. Whitmire’s chief of staff and Coleman confirmed to The Texas Tribune that they will begin with pushing again for measures they hoped to achieve with the 2017 law — like investigations into racial profiling and officer consequences. Many provisions were removed from the bill after law enforcement opposition.

[…]

Coleman told the Tribune on Tuesday that he and Whitmire will start with filing legislation that was removed from the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, such as measures to increase the standards by which law enforcement can stop and search a vehicle and ban law enforcement from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations to allow an officer to look into other suspicions. Coleman said they will also look at filing measures related to what constituents are asking for in the wake of Floyd’s death, “specifically getting rid of choke holds” and ensuring that, “if a peace officer is standing around watching their colleague do something wrong, that they must intervene.”

See here for some background. The Chron adds some details.

Lawmakers in 2019 tried to revive the limitation on arrests but faced steep opposition from police unions and lost support from some Democrats who disagreed with parts of its language that they felt gave police too much discretion.

This time around, however, Gov. Greg Abbott is already speaking publicly in support of legislation that would prevent a death like Floyd’s from happening in Texas, which he called a “horrific act of police brutality” in a news conference Tuesday.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, the Houston Democrat who authored the Sandra Bland Act, was listening.

“When Sandra Bland happened, we didn’t have Gov. Abbott coming out and saying that this was appalling,” said Coleman, a member of the newly formed bipartisan House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “We do on this case. Across the country, people who ordinarily would not side with the protesters in terms of what happened, they are. We have peace officers kneeling with protesters saying enough is enough. … That’s the great thing about life. Things can evolve.”

[…]

The Sandra Bland Act has already seen some early success: According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the number of annual suicides declined by 50 percent from 35 in 2015 to 17 in 2018 after the implementation of new standards for mentally ill inmates and independent investigations of jail deaths

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said he also hopes to bring back discussion of the misdemeanor arrest restrictions missing from the Bland Act, as well as reforms of grand juries and the death penalty.

“It’s just a nightmare scenario with not only Mr. Floyd’s death but all of the stories — they’ve got to compel us not just to say the right things but to do the right things,” Leach said. “So, yes, my hope is that we will come together quickly and act, and I think you’re going to see the House and Senate do that next session.”

Other reforms lawmakers’ said they’d like to revisit in 2021 include deeper training on racial bias, stronger laws to prevent racial profiling in arrests and, like the Blands, ending “pretext stops.”

[…]

The fiercest political opposition has tended to come from police unions, including the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, better known as CLEAT.

Last session, the group fought the measure blocking arrests for class C, low-level misdemeanors because of a concern about taking away officer discretion.

It also opposed a bill written by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would have made more records regarding in-custody death public. The police union said it was concerned that alleged misconduct would become public before the completion of an investigation.

After a bitter fight, the group declined to meet with Moody and certain other lawmakers.

“There’s a philosophical shift that we have to undertake next session,” Moody said. “Being told that we can’t even have a conversation about it, that is a nonstarter. We are going to have a conversation about this. … So while some cop lobbyist in Austin says we’re not allowed to talk about it, it’s not his decision to make. It’s our decision to make, and we have to get to work on this in a real way.”

There’s lots of things the Lege could do, and this all sounds like a good start. Overcoming opposition from law enforcement will be the main challenge. The head guy at CLEAT says they’re willing to talk to anyone speaking “in good faith”, and you can take that as you see fit. As I see it, they’re welcome to sit at our table if they have something constructive to offer, but no one has to go sit at theirs if they don’t want to. This session looks like the best opportunity to take positive action. Let’s keep that momentum going.

UPDATE: Well, what do you know?

In the first statewide policy change since George Floyd’s death shook the nation, the Texas agency that regulates police has agreed to add implicit bias training to a course required for every officer, upon the request of Houston Democratic state Rep. Garnet Coleman.

The requirement was one that had been included in an early iteration, but not the final version, of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which requires all officers to take de-escalation training.

This time, Coleman went a different route and simply asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement if it would make the change administratively as opposed to waiting for new legislation. To his delight, the commission responded a day later that it would adopt the policy.

Coleman said he will work with the agency on crafting and finalizing curriculum, but the purpose will be to train officers about the possibility that they may be unconsciously carrying preconceived notions or prejudices that can affect their actions on the job.

“It does what the public is asking for,” Coleman said. “When a police officer doesn’t understand that they have this bias, the only way to change it is for them to recognize that they have a bias that may be a racial bias.

“When people say, ‘How do you change how people think?’ This is how you change how people think.”

Who knew it could be that easy? May the rest of it be the same.

When will the lawsuits against the “sanctuary cities” bill begin to be filed?

Soon.

The question isn’t whether or not the Texas attorney general’s office will be hauled to court over a Texas Senate bill to ban “sanctuary” policies in Texas — but, more likely, when they’ll be asked to defend Senate bill 4 in a federal court.

“There are ways to challenge the bill before September to prevent its implementation and we’ll be looking to challenge this as soon as possible,” said Marisa Bono, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Bono was referring to the Sept 1 date the bill is slated to take effect. Senators approved the controversial measure late Thursday after it cleared the Texas House last week.

[…]

Bono, whose firm represented some of the plaintiffs who successfully sued the state over its 2011 voter ID law and that year’s redistricting maps, said that litigation could focus on several issues, including what power states have to craft their own immigration-enforcement laws. A separate issue is whether the requests from federal authorities, known as detainers, are mandatory or voluntary.

“There are a number of provisions throughout the bill, including the detainer provision and several other sections, that raise concerns about preemption and vagueness” in the bill, she said.

The bill was passed after a San Antonio-based three-judge panel ruled that lawmakers either violated the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act in 2011 by intentionally watering down the strength of minority voters in Texas. That was just weeks after a federal judge ruled that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Hispanic and black Texans after the Legislature passed a strict voter ID law in 2011.

Bono said although those rulings prove state Republicans have had minorities in their crosshairs for years, she was confident plaintiffs would prevail in a lawsuit against SB4 because of the bill itself.

“We consider the wind at our backs because of the way the bill is worded,” she said. “But certainly the state’s history of intentional discrimination — and specifically recent targeting against the immigrant community — will be helpful in the narrative.”

See here for the background. It would be more than a little ironic if Texas’ discriminatory history, which has been reiterated multiple times in the courts lately, comes back to bite the state in the lawsuits that get filed over SB4. For sure, the state deserves zero benefit of the doubt, especially given all the testimony against SB4.

The Chron adds some details.

“People need to understand there’s a symbiotic relationship police have with the communities they serve. … If there’s a law that’s passed and officers start asking people’s status, that’s going to send a chill through the community,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit. “While this bill doesn’t require them to ask, there will be people who will interpret this bill as a green light to do immigration work, which is not the work of state and local police, that’s a federal responsibility.”

Citing already heightened tensions in Houston’s Latino community over anti-immigrant rhetoric, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Thursday he had already heard examples of residents who regretted reporting domestic violence crimes and then seeing their partners deported.

The new legislation could raise the stakes even further, he said.

“There’s this fear that any potential traffic stop, any call for service calling for police – they can be questioned, and why would they even call to begin with?” he said.

Troy Nehls, the Republican sheriff of Fort Bend County, warned the legislation goes too far by needlessly encroaching on local authority.

“I don’t support sanctuary cities, I’ve made that very clear,” Nehls said. “But some of language in this bill, I don’t agree with. … Adding the criminal penalty to sheriffs and others, it’s an overreach by state officials and state government.”

He said he would not fight the Legislature’s mandate but would use discretion as he went about his job.

“I’m not going to violate law, but if Sheriff Nehls makes a traffic stop, I’m not asking for your immigration status,” he said.

[…]

Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who specializes in immigration and constitutional law, said they can ask about immigration status but they cannot detain immigrants without charges while waiting for federal agents to pick them up.

“It was a little bit meaningless in the sense of what Arizona could do with it,” Spiro said. “(Police) can’t hold someone on a suspected immigration violation in and of itself.”

Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said the organization found “clear and potential constitutional problems” in more than 75 percent of traffic stops in Arizona, and have asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate.

“The stops now occurring in Arizona can take from 15 minutes to three hours,” she said. “It is believed that is a constitutional violation.”

She said the high court also said that the state’s policy opens up the potential of racial profiling, but the issue so far hasn’t been addressed by the courts.

“This is an invitation for racial profiling,” Burke said. “You have people in an area who are brown-skinned and look foreign, they’re going to be asked for their papers.”

Law enforcement is strongly against this law, for lots of good reasons. I don’t know what effect that will have on the litigation, but we may as well keep it in mind.

And whatever is to come with this, it has begun.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a ban on “sanctuary cities” into law on Sunday, putting the final touch on legislation that would also allow police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.

“Texas has now banned sanctuary cities in the Lone Star State,” Abbott said in a brief video address on Facebook. Abbott signed the bill without advance notice in a five-minute live broadcast on the social media site, avoiding protests a customary public signing might have drawn.

“We’re going to where most people are getting their news nowadays and talking directly to them instead of speaking through a filter,” said John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott.

And also at a time and in a fashion that made it easy to exclude other politicians and hide from protesters. Greg Abbott’s gonna do Greg Abbott things. It’s our move now.

Law enforcement versus open carry, round 2

This ought to be interesting.

After two shootings targeting police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, there’s been an uptick in the national conversation about how best to support law enforcement. Politicians and lawmakers such as Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who used his platform during a town hall on race and policing to ask President Obama if he was sure law enforcement knew in their “heart” that he supported them, have been at the forefront of this renewed dialogue. Governor Greg Abbott has also showed support for law enforcement by announcing the Police Protection Act, a proposal that aims to increase penalties for crimes against law enforcement and would reclassify an attack on an officer as a hate crime.

Abbott hopes that the act will be passed in the 2017 Legislative session. For their part in the upcoming session, law enforcement groups plan to bring up an issue that they somewhat disagree with Abbott on: open carry. According to the Texas Tribune, some groups intend to request revisions to open carry. Along with other issues such as restoring funds and improving employee benefits, Charley Wilkison, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, wants to recommend changes to the law to make it easier for law enforcement to handle open carry.

“I expect to stand in committee and say all our rights are abridged everyday,” Wilkison told the Tribune. “You still can’t even yell ‘fire’ in a theater. So my freedom of speech is abridged just like yours. There is a greater good called the community. We’ll try to make our stand there.”

Open carry has been a point of contention between Texas lawmakers and law enforcement since the 2015 legislative session. Republican lawmakers, buoyed by Abbott’s promise to sign any bill expanding gun rights that landed on his desk, pushed to pass the open carry and campus carry laws, even as law enforcement groups around the state opposed such measures. There were concerns that open carry would make situations such as active shooters more dangerous as law enforcement tried to figure out who was a threat and who wasn’t. During a Senate committee hearing on the bills in February 2015, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo referenced data that showed that 75 percent of Texas police chiefs surveyed said they were opposed to open carry. It was later in May that the concerns of police officers were taken into consideration, and lawmakers removed a portion of the open carry bill that would have prevented law enforcement from checking people for gun licenses if they were openly carrying a gun.

[…]

So though the Police Protection Act seems to have good intentions, it’s helpfulness is doubtful. What might actually be helpful in protecting police officers is examining their concerns about a law they stated would make their jobs more dangerous. This time around, will politicians and lawmakers like Patrick and Abbott—who are strong supporters of open carry and expanding gun rights—continue to support law enforcement who want to make changes to open carry? The upcoming legislative session might be an opportunity to see how much support they’re willing to give.

This Trib story from a few days before goes into some more detail about this upcoming dispute. I still can’t quite tell what exactly CLEAT and similar organizations are asking for. Ope carry isn’t going to get repealed, though perhaps there is some room to accommodate law enforcement concerns this time around. It’s hard to say without knowing exactly what kind of modifications they’re seeking. The main thing that I’ll be looking for is how Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick respond to this. Patrick has been hugging law enforcement extra hard for political purposes lately; we’ll see how he reacts when they don’t play along with his script.

How ready is Texas law enforcement for open carry?

Hard to say. But we’ll begin to find out soon enough.

Texas law enforcement has also been pretty vocal about their concerns with open carry. They are, after all, the group who’ll have to deal with most of the potential fallout of the new law in the upcoming months. While a majority of police chiefs have expressed a general opposition to the law (75 percent, according to a survey in February) , they were most vocal in May when a provision was added that would prevent police officers from stopping people solely because they were openly carrying a gun. By then, the passing of open carry seemed inevitable, so even Democrats who were originally opposed to the law supported the provision in hopes that it would help prevent the targeting of people of color openly carrying handguns.

“What’s going to happen is more interaction between police and black and brown and poor people because of lawful activity,” Rep. Harold Dutton told KXAN.

The provision made some sense, especially considering issues of racial profiling among Texas state troopers, but it was flawed. In May, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference that the provision would “handcuff” police officers and prevent them from doing their jobs. He was accompanied by members of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, the Sheriff’s Association of Texas, and police unions from Houston and Dallas.

[…]

Experts predict that open carry will most likely take place in small numbers in rural areas, but unlike Oklahoma, six of the most populous cities in the country are in Texas: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso. And that’s not taking into account the political climate around gun control in Texas this year. There have been number of demonstrators openly carrying rifles in large cities, the most recent being a group of armed protestors in front of a mosque in Irving and demonstrators who marched with rifles near UT-Austin and later held a mock mass shooting to protest “gun-free zones.” It’s still unclear why they felt the need to protest what would soon be law.

But one of the biggest concerns of law enforcement is establishing the fine line between respecting the rights of someone legally carrying a handgun and protecting the general public. “What happens when an officer sees someone openly carrying a handgun in a holster, in accordance with the law, what can an officer legally do?” Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, told the Houston Chronicle. “We keep getting more questions than answers.”

The fear is that open carry will make it harder for police officers to tell the difference between a law-abiding citizen legally carrying a gun and someone with criminal intentions carrying a gun. In the Houston Chronicle, comments like these from Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, don’t really help to clarify things.

Houston police, he said, will not “be doing random stops of people simply to see if they have a CHL,” but they also will not “sit back for 30 minutes” if they have a reasonable suspicion to stop someone.

So, what will they do?

Click over and see. I think open carry is bad policy, but I also think it will have a relatively minimal effect. You have to have a concealed carry license in order to be able to carry openly, and it was already legal before now for any yahoo with a cheap Soldier of Fortune fantasy to carry any manner of rifle around in public, as we have seen over and over again. It’s the interaction between law enforcement and those who will be openly carrying that is hard to predict. If I had a CHL, I’d probably continue to carry my weapon in a concealed fashion, because who needs the hassle? But then I’m not the type of person who likes to invite trouble to make a point. The other questions involve where people can carry, and how many lawsuits are going to be filed because someone disagreed with someone else’s interpretation of that, and also with how businesses will cater to those who want to carry and those who want to not be around people who carry. I won’t be surprised if that first issue, for this and for campus carry, is revisited in 2017.

Do we have too much police?

One thing that every candidate I talk to about crime in Houston agrees on is that we need for the various law enforcement agencies in Houston to work together better. Via Grits, it would seem that this is a statewide problem.

The Texas State Board of Pharmacy, which licenses and disciplines pharmacists, has its own. So do the state Department of Insurance and the Board of Dental Examiners.

The Mackenzie Municipal Water Authority, which supplies water to four small Panhandle towns, has one, as does the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a private trade group. Concordia University Texas recently acquired its own.

Every organization that might conceivably come into contact with a scofflaw, it seems, wants its own police department. And in Texas, many get to have them.

“The joke at the Capitol,” said Tom Gaylor, who lobbies for the Texas Municipal Police Association, which has opposed the proliferation of policing agencies, “is that it’s often easier to identify those who aren’t police officers.”

In recent years, the peace officer designation has spread far beyond its original constitutional definition of constables, sheriffs, marshals and police officers. Since 1965, legislators have amended the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which sets out who can designate their own police department, nearly 50 times.

The result: Today there are three dozen types of agencies, institutions, boards, commissions and political subdivisions that can appoint their own law enforcement agents. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, which licenses police officers, keeps tabs on 2,615 separate law enforcement agencies.

These are not just hobby cops.

“In Texas, when you get a commissioned, certified police officer, you get the same person who has the ability to investigate crimes and the authority to arrest,” said Charley Wilkison, public affairs director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a statewide police union. “And they’re on the job 24/7.”

That means that on the average, each county in Texas has about ten unique law enforcement agencies operating within its boundaries. I’d bet Harris has a lot more than that. As Grits notes in his post, one big problem resulting from this is communication and coordination between all these agencies. Including, you may be surprised to learn, some that are not subject to some of the same regulations and requirements that public agencies must adhere to.

In 2006, a commissioned peace officer named Bobby Arriola was fired from Methodist Health System of Dallas, which boasts its own police department because of its affiliation with a medical school.

But when Arriola asked for the arrest report and other documents such as his personnel file, the hospital said they were corporate records not subject to public scrutiny. In a May 2007 opinion, the state attorney general agreed.

“The (hospital) system, including its police department, is not a governmental body subjected to the (Public Information) Act,” it concluded.

There’s a can of worms for you. All of this makes me think that the real problem isn’t interdepartmental coordination, it’s having too many departments in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s not a problem that can be solved by the Mayor or City Council.