Texas Eyes Sweeping Changes in Police-Community Relations

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Texas police at the 'fallen heroes' memorial in Wash DC . Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

On July 7, 2016, a peaceful protest in Dallas turned into a tragedy when 12 law enforcement officers were shot and five of them killed during an ambush.

It was the deadliest day for law enforcement in the United States since 72 officers were killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The event put state law enforcement on edge and police protection at the forefront in the Texas Legislature. It also helped push forward an already simmering movement by police advocates to improve  protection of law enforcement.

Texas has lost 1,682 officers on the line of duty—more than any other state since it was annexed to the United States in 1849.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial reports that Texas had 17 officer fatalities in 2016, the highest in the country. Across the country, 64 officers were shot and killed—a 56 percent increase over 2015, which saw 41 officer deaths from shootings. “It is truly a dark day for law enforcement,” Memorial Fund President Craig W. Floyd said on the day following the Dallas ambush.

“However, much more troubling is the disturbing trend of officers being killed in ambush attacks, like the one in Dallas last night.”

It is a trend police advocates in Texas have noticed for years.

“Citizens (need to understand)  that officers are trained a certain way to act upon a traffic stop and (if they recognized) the normalcy of that—what the officers are trained to do—then there’d be less fear,” said Charley Wilkison,  executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) .

CLEAT is the largest police officers’ union and legal services provider for law enforcement officers in the state. It is also the largest alliance of local police officers’ associations.

Wilkison attributed Texas’ population size, diversity in cultures and mindsets—including the many people who move in from other states—to tensions between  law enforcement and civilians.

The fact that “officers are curt, short and professional with their questions” might put some people off, unless they understood the “vulnerability” Texas officers feel as a result of the high death toll of their colleagues, Wilkison said.

Officers in Texas are trained to be on the defensive from the moment their “boot hits the ground,” he said. This includes looking for any red flags that might put officers on heightened alert.

“If students, young people, come to realize the officer is taking a risk just by being there, then I believe it would reduce officer death,” Wilkison said.

But it may take more than just a change in attitude to change the way police officers and the people they serve interact.

Two bills introduced by two Democratic Texas senators, recently combined into Senate Bill 30, may go a long way towards institutionalizing better police-community relationships.

Capitol Dome, Austin,Texas. Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

The bill was filed by State Senators Royce West (Dallas) and John Whitmire (Houston) and referred to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, which is chaired by Whitmire, on March 13. A spokesperson for West’s office said the bill is expected to be debated  next week.

If passed, the bill would require the State Board of Education and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to reach an agreement setting each agency’s respective responsibilities in “developing instruction, including curriculum and instructional modules, on proper interaction with peace officers during traffic stops and other in-person encounters.”

The instruction would be based on recommendations made by the Stakeholder Task Force on Police and Citizen Interactions. Information covered would need to include:

  • the role of law enforcement and the duties and responsibilities of peace officers;
  • a person’s rights regarding interactions with the officers;
  • proper behavior for civilians and peace officers during these interactions;
  • laws regarding questioning and detention by peace officers; and
  • how and where to file a complaint or compliment on behalf of a peace officer.

The board and commission are expected to consider public comment before finalizing the instruction.  The board would need to implement the instruction into curriculum for public high school students.

The commission would add the instruction to driver education and driver safety courses and require that police officers complete the civilian interaction training program.

If passed, the requirements from the bill would need to be implemented by Sept. 1, 2018.

An example West gave is a “proper procedure” when a police officer wants a driver to pull over at night in a rural area with no street lights. The curriculum and training would have taught the driver that he or she should put their flashers on, and pull over once they reach a lighted area. A police officer, in turn, would know to expect this as “proper behavior.”

“We hope that by doing we can reduce any type of tension between officers and citizens, and also save lives—both law enforcement and citizens,” West said.

The senator was also motivated to push for this legislation after Sandra Bland, an Illinois black woman who was arrested in Waller County, was later discovered dead in her jail cell in what officials ruled a suicide.

Wilkison believes the bill will pass, noting that it has received widespread bipartisan and public support.  “It is a step away from the current libertarian wave in the Capitol that says citizens have the right to do whatever they want,” he said. “Citizens have a responsibility, just as the police officer has a responsibility.”

He believes the state could see the impact of the bill as soon as three years beginning with the younger generation.

Several other bills on the Texas legislative calendar this year focus on providing greater support to police in the performance of their duties. The session ends May 29.

State Bill 12, endorsed by Sen. West, asks the legislature to set aside $25 million for the creation of a grant program to help law enforcement agencies purchase bulletproof vests to offer police officers peace of mind when in the field. State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) wrote House Bill 245, which calls for restricting state dollars to agencies that fail to report incidents involving officer-related shootings.

If passed, all bills would go into effect September 1.

In the aftermath of the Dallas ambush, Gov. Greg Abbott called for classifying violence targeted against police officers or any first responders as a hate crime. If passed, HB 429 would increase penalties for attacking a police officer, firefighter or paramedic.

In Missouri, bills aimed at police protection are making headway, but lawmakers stopped short of pushing for the “hate crime” designation. If passed, individuals who perpetuate violence against police officers would face “enhanced” penalties.

“There’s been quite a bit of shootings of police officers for no other reason than being police officers,” said state Rep. Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles).

Missouri is one of nine states considering adoption of a Blue Alert System, that functions similarly to an Amber Alert, and helps “identify, locate and apprehend,” a person of interest when a police officer is critically injured or killed per House Bill 228.

Twenty-seven states, including Texas, currently have the Blue Alert.

The Los Angeles Times reports Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) plans to introduce a bill that “will involve formally notifying those who make complaints against officers of the case’s status, and developing a mediation system to resolve disputes between residents and police officers.”

Low’s spokesperson said the bill is in its infancy and that more information would be available mid-month.

“I think the whole country is just trying to do a shift a little more toward the center,” Conway said. “A little more common sense is being inserted and more respect for men and women in police and military uniforms. They are demanding we look after them like they look after us.”

Christine Bolaños is Texas-based freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. The 2016 International Women’s Media Foundation reported on women’s development and rights in El Salvador. She covers government, education, human interest features and business for numerous international, national and local outlets. Visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/christinebolanos/ or https://christinebolanos.contently.com/ to view her work. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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