AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas has more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies, far more than any other state, with dozens of new ones created every year. That’s too many, said law enforcement officials and state legislators at a December hearing at the Texas State Capitol on the future of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

“The Sheriffs’ Association truly thinks the Legislature needs to get a grip on the creation of law enforcement agencies,” Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorne told the Sunset Advisory Commission on Dec. 6. “We don’t need to be creating one- and two-man police departments.”

Hawthorne’s remarks came during a meeting over the future of TCOLE, which sets training standards and provides oversight of law enforcement departments in the state. TCOLE has been under Sunset Commission audit for years. The agency has been reviewed and re-reviewed. The resulting reports say TCOLE is largely “toothless,” and the Sunset Commission has recommended its oversight powers be enhanced.

On Dec. 6, lawmakers mulled a slew of concerns and potential improvements to the agency, including raising minimum standards for the creation of new departments. Revamping those rules could rein in how many departments are created, and exist, in the future.

“TCOLE lacks clear authority to deny registration to [law enforcement agencies],” according to the Sunset Commission’s most recent report. “Under state law, more than 40 types of organizations can become LEAs and appoint peace officers, but TCOLE cannot set substantive requirements for LEAs, such as facilities and equipment standards.”

Hospitals, water districts, charter schools, private universities, and more are allowed to open their own police departments.

Many of those agencies are tiny, potentially unnecessary and stretch TCOLE’s already-thin resources, according to Hawthorne and others.

“There’s a reason why California, New York, and those other states … don’t have all these random police departments,” Hawthorne said. “It’s a lot easier for the state agency like TCOLE to regulate and focus on my agency and my training, instead of worrying about a one-man water district police department.”

State comparison

Texas – with more than 2,700 agencies – dwarfs the numbers in other large states, according to a study of TCOLE by Texas 2036, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group.

California, with 10 million more people, has just over 600 departments. Florida, with about 8 million fewer people than Texas, has just over 330 departments, according to Texas 2036’s report.

Not only does Texas have far more departments than other large states, but more are being created every year. Since 2017, almost 200 new departments were created across the state. Most of the new agencies are school district police offices.

‘TCOLE needs to have the authority’

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said TCOLE needs the power to deny certification of a new department. TMPA is one of the largest police unions in the state, representing over 30,000 law enforcement officers.

Sixty percent of the law enforcement agencies statewide have fewer than 10 officers, he said.

“When you have that many departments that have that small of staffing levels, what are the odds that they have a legal adviser on staff? Most of the local communities don’t even have a full-time city attorney to advise their employees,” Lawrence said. “The issue is, is it practical for that size of an entity, for an entity with that budget, to have a law enforcement agency?”

The type of police department – whether it’s a water district, private university, hospital or school district – isn’t the issue, Lawrence said.

“TCOLE needs to have the authority to say: ‘I’m sorry, but you don’t have the resources to properly manage a law enforcement agency. You need to contract with somebody else, you need to consolidate with somebody,’” Lawrence said. “We think the solution here is — and Phil King introduced this in the last legislative session — require every agency to be accredited, just like we do colleges and universities. Require them to meet certain benchmarks, or they don’t get to operate anymore.”

Jimmy Perdue, President of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said his organization is in favor of increasing standards for police departments, but he stopped short of advocating for full accreditation.

“Most people would be very surprised at the very limited amount of information that has to be compiled in order for you to be certified as a law enforcement agency,” Perdue said. “It’s a very, very short list.”

Perdue said his organization believes those standards need to be increased, and agencies should be accountable for maintaining those standards going forward. Currently, once an agency is certified, there is no checklist to ensure the minimum standards are maintained, he said.

Perdue said TPCA is not in favor of requiring full accreditation of all law enforcement agencies. That was in a bill in the last legislative session, and it resulted in a “fairly significant fiscal note” that hindered the bill’s progress, said Purdue, who is chief of North Richland Hills Police.

“We’re not advocating that every agency, at this point particularly, immediately, be accredited,” Perdue said. “But maybe as a long-term goal, we should be looking towards that for the whole state.”

A marshal in New Berlin

Through mid-November of 2022, there were 28 new police departments added in Texas, according to TCOLE records. Among those was a city marshal’s office in New Berlin – a town of about 1,200 between San Antonio and Seguin.

State leaders may be concerned about standards at tiny police departments, but New Berlin’s Mayor Walter Williams said his town now has an effective way to address growth and new crime in his area.

This year, New Berlin created a TCOLE-certified city marshal’s office. The town has one marshal – essentially a police officer who can respond faster to local needs, Williams said. The Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Office used to cover the town, but handling calls countywide slows response times, he said.

“People have discovered us,” Williams told KXAN by phone. “Developers have found us, and they are starting to build housing developments, and with that comes crime.”

Williams said he understands the legislature’s concerns with the proliferation of small agencies. New departments should be created “responsibly,” not as sources of revenue through creating, for example, speed traps.

“I have no problem with someone looking over our shoulder,” he said, regarding more standards or scrutiny of departments.

New Berlin isn’t the only Texas department created recently. Uhland, a town of roughly 1,600 east of Kyle, got a certified department in October, TCOLE records show.

CapMetro – Austin’s transportation agency – is in the process of building a transit police force. Once certified by TCOLE, it will be led by Eric Robins, who spent 30 years as an officer in Sugar Land.

Looking forward

Lawmakers will take up the issue again in January, when the next legislative session begins. Though lawmakers made no substantial statutory reforms to TCOLE in the 2021 session, they appeared more receptive on Dec. 6.

“I think it is one of those that we have to seriously look at,” said Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, responding to Sheriff Hawthorne’s concerns about the proliferation of small law enforcement departments.

“I appreciate your thoughts on the overabundance of law enforcement agencies and hyper-creation of those,” said State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

Lawrence, of TMPA, described the issue as “complex” and overdue for reform. The state needs to provide not just power to TCOLE but also the funding and staffing to carry out an increased mandate.

“It’s time to back order the commas and the zeros that are gonna be necessary to do it right,” Lawrence said.