Texas currently has 2,700 police departments, a number that law enforcement leaders and lawmakers believe is too high.
Officials recently met at the Texas Capitol on December 6 to discuss the future of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) and the number of unnecessary agencies created across the state.
According to officials, Texas has the most law enforcement agencies per state in the country by far. For contrast, California has 600 law enforcement departments, while Florida has 330.
In addition, dozens of new departments are created in the state each year. Since 2017, nearly 200 departments were established in the state.
“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. “We don’t need to be creating one- and two-man police departments.”
The meeting addressed the future of TCOLE, which provides oversight and sets training standards for law enforcement departments in Texas.
The agency, which has been under audit by the Sunset Commission for several years, was called “toothless” in the commission’s reports.
In order to increase the efficacy of TCOLE, lawmakers discussed raising the minimum standards for the creation of new departments.
“TCOLE lacks clear authority to deny registration to [law enforcement agencies],” a Sunset Commission report found. “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.”
Under the current guidelines, hospitals, water districts, charter schools, private universities and other organizations can open their own tiny police departments without restriction.
Officials say that the extra departments are not only unnecessary but costly.
“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.”
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association — a union that represents over 30,000 police officers — said TCOLE needs more authority.
“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. The issue is, is it practical for that size of an entity, for an entity with that budget, to have a law enforcement agency?” 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 added.
Lawrence urged legislators to pass a measure introduced last session to require agencies to be accredited like colleges and universities.
“Require them to meet certain benchmarks, or they don’t get to operate anymore,” he said.
Out of the 28 new departments created this year, one was a city marshal’s office for the 1,200-resident town of New Berlin.
New Berlin’s Mayor Walter Williams said the marshal’s office was created to address population growth and crime in the area.
According to Williams, Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Office covers the town but struggles with slow response times due to serving the entire county.
“People have discovered us,” Williams told KXAN. “Developers have found us, and they are starting to build housing developments, and with that comes crime.”
Still, Williams said he understands the legislator’s concerns and is not opposed to increased oversight or stricter standards.
“I have no problem with someone looking over our shoulder,” he said.
Aside from New Berlin, Uhland is another town that opened a certified police department.
Austin’s transportation agency CapMetro is also planning to launch its own police force to safeguard city transit.
Lawmakers said they will discuss the issue in January during the new legislative session.