Texas’s Police Watchdog Agency Gets Failing Grade In State Review

A Dallas cop staged a roadside stop in this training video from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The agency was called "toothless" in a scathing government report.
A Dallas cop staged a roadside stop in this training video from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The agency was called "toothless" in a scathing government report.
Texas’s Sunset Advisory Commission had some scathing words for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement — the statewide agency responsible for licensing and overseeing all police officers and departments in the state — in a November report analyzing the agency’s effectiveness.

According to the report, the Lone Star State’s top police watchdog is a “by and large, toothless” organization without any real power to hold bad cops accountable or to set statewide standards for proper police behavior, and is part of “a fundamentally broken system” that lets individual law enforcement agencies choose and enforce their own definitions for misconduct.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission was created in 1977 to analyze the effectiveness and justify the existence of state government agencies. All state agencies have to be reauthorized following a formal review process every 12 years.

According to the Sunset report, TCOLE is only authorized to enforce statewide police training standards for Texas cops, while individual law enforcement agencies have all the power to set rules for what constitutes professional conduct and to enforce them.

Simply put, “Texas lacks statewide standards of professional conduct for law enforcement personnel, which are instead set and enforced inconsistently at the local level,” the report read.

Currently, TCOLE can only revoke a police officer’s statewide license if that cop is “convicted or given deferred adjudication for a felony or certain misdemeanor crimes,” or if an officer fails to comply with TCOLE training rules.

In a lurid example of how this type of system doesn’t let TCOLE pull the licenses of bad cops for outrageous behavior that falls outside of those narrow lines, the report references how “TCOLE was not able to take action against an officer” in San Antonio who literally gave a homeless person a dog shit sandwich.

“The officer was fired, rehired by the city after arbitration, and then subsequently fired again for a second incident involving the use of feces,” the report read.

The report also outlines how TCOLE is powerless to stop officers who were dishonorably discharged for bad behavior from being rehired by other police departments in the state, even though local departments are required to report an officer’s discharge status to TCOLE.

“Despite this notice, about a quarter of licensees given a dishonorable discharge are subsequently employed” by another Texas police agency, the report explained. In the 2019 fiscal year, TCOLE reported 607 Texas cops were dishonorably discharged, 170 of whom were later rehired.

The Houston Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Sunset commission's report on the state's police watchdog agency.

In what could be labelled as either a side-step or a signal of just how broken the current system is, the Sunset commission recommended in its report that the state Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott should set up a “blue ribbon panel” to “fully review, evaluate, and recommend changes to law enforcement regulation in Texas” instead of prescribing a full list of major reforms.

Thanks to Republicans’ firm grip on all the levers of power in Austin, it’s a foregone conclusion that any special panel formed to reevaluate Texas’s weak police oversight rules would be full of conservative true-believers, many of whom have spent the last several months pledging their undying support for Texan cops and fear-mongering about how all Democrats want to do is defund police and leave Texas cities defenseless.

It’s hard to imagine that any oversight panel staffed by Texas Republicans would recommend increasing the amount of power of a state watchdog agency, especially one that oversees police. But then again, the Sunset commission that put together this damning report that broadly calls for such reforms is chock-full of Republicans itself.

All of the Sunset commission’s 12 members are Republican state legislators, except for Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Democratic state Rep. Terry Canales and two private citizens previously appointed to the commission by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

If that many Republicans could publicly acknowledge the pitiful state of Texas’s police oversight structure, then maybe there’s hope after all that a future blue ribbon panel wouldn’t just rubber-stamp the embarrassingly lax status quo.

The Sunset Advisory Commission’s full report on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is embedded below.