In Texas, A Police Officer For Everyone?
(NPR) The Lone Star State loves guns — and badges and handcuffs, too.
Texas has more than 73,000 sworn peace officers — roughly one for every 330 people.
In fact, Texas has so many police officers, some lawmakers are worried there are too many.
Among the many entities in Texas that have their own peace officers is the State Board of Dental Examiners. But you won’t generally hear these officers saying “Stop, put your hands up! Dental police!”
“Typically what we do is investigate white-collar crimes,” says Lisa Jones, an enforcement chief who oversees seven officers at the dental examiners board. “Like practicing dentistry without a license.”
It turns out Texas is just full of small, specialized police forces: the State Insurance Department has one, as do the Lottery and Racing commissions, the Pharmacy Board, and a handful of water districts.
Others have tried, but failed. The Texas board of foot doctors wanted its own police department. But that wasn’t such a good idea, according to Hemant Makin, director of the Texas State Board of Podiatric Examiners.
“To me, what police means are men and women in uniforms with guns who take 911 calls,” Hemant says. “We didn’t ask to be police. We had asked for a law enforcement standing, which gives us the ability to investigate crimes such as health care fraud.”
And the Legislature’s House Committee on Law Enforcement drew the line there.
“Why did the foot doctors need a police agency?” asks Joe Driver, the state representative who was chairman of the committee that denied the Texas board of foot doctors its police force.
The podiatry board has withdrawn its request for its own cops, as state and federal authorities have beefed up investigations of health care, or foot care, fraud.
The proliferation of boutique police agencies has raised the concern of the Texas Municipal Police Association. Their lobbyist, Tom Gaylor, worries that specialized police forces aren’t ready for prime time.
“What kind of resources does that agency have?” Gaylor asks. “Where are they going to take an arrested person? What type of backup availability is there? One of the biggest concerns we have is what type of communication do they have between that agency and other agencies nearby?”
And what are their use-of-force guidelines?
On Aug. 16, three peace officers with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission — charged with enforcing the state’s alcohol laws — approached a suspect who was being pursued by Austin police. The agents claim the suspect tried to run them over. They shot him — and he later died. The incident is being investigated by the Texas Rangers.
Gaylor says with more and more peace officers out there, he doesn’t want the public to get confused. The Police Association will be working with the Legislature in the next session to define a peace officer.
“We want to be [sure] a cop is a cop is a cop,” Gaylor says. “And if you see a cop, you understand what you’re getting.”
Lone Rangers — In The Classroom
Meanwhile, the fastest-growing category of new police forces is public school districts. In Texas, 163 school districts have their own police departments. More than one-quarter of them have just one officer.
Blooming Grove Independent School District is located in a quiet farming and bedroom community an hour south of Dallas. Gary Patterson is the Blooming Grove ISD police force.
“I’m the police chief and sole police officer of the Blooming Grove ISD police force,” Patterson says. “You wear a lot of hats when you’re the only person.”
Patterson patrols the halls of Blooming Grove High School — home of the Fighting Lions — a benign figure in his blue police shirt with a tonsure of white hair and a shambling gait. After a long career as a dispatcher for the state troopers, Patterson came back to the town where he grew up.
“You’re kind of like a father or grandfather figure to a lot of them,” Patterson says. “Cause you’ve known them since they were in elementary and you’ve kind of grown up with them.”
It would be easy to criticize his position as one more example of superfluous Texas peace officers — until you follow him around the school. He knows the kids by name. He knows their parents. He knows what’s going on in their lives. He knows why they’re in trouble.
Patrolling the cafeteria, Patterson walks up on a boy sitting sheepishly in the corner of the lunchroom. The policeman already knows the youth has violated the school dress code and chosen detention over paddling.
“You’re over here because you didn’t have your shirt tucked in. It’s either that or a swat. Why didn’t you take the swat?” he asks.
“I didn’t know how hard he’d hit,” the student responds.
“I bet it’s pretty hard,” Patterson says. “You done told your dad? Put your shirttail in!”
The Blooming Grove school district policeman pats the student on the back and ambles off into the lunchroom to keep the peace.