The Texas system of flagging problem cops should be tightened, with officer's state records reflecting they were fired as soon as they've gone through their first appeal, former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford said.
Bradford, a City Council member, was stung by Texas Watchdog's revelation that of the seven officers proclaimed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker to be “fired” last June in the wake of a police brutality case, only one has actually lost his job a year later. The others retired, were reinstated, or are appealing their firings, a process that can drag on for months or years and delay any blemish from showing up on their state record.
While there are layers of bureaucracy in Texas aimed at protecting the public from rogue cops, from mandatory phone checks to lengthy documentation of misdeeds, the simplest state licensing form fails to warn an employer of a criminal officer. The form that does isn't filed by policing agencies until after all employment appeals have been exhausted -- in the meantime, rogue officers can just get new police jobs here or in other states.
“This is a problem not just in Texas but in America,” Bradford said. “They check with TCLEOSE here, and as you can see, (those) records are not complete.”
TCLEOSE, shorthand for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, licenses cops and records paperwork called an F5 form when an officer leaves an agency. The form is not exclusive to officers canned under adverse circumstances – it’s a one-size-fits-all record for officers who retire with accolades and those dismissed for beating a suspect or other cause.
Of the seven officers placed on indefinite suspension following the beating of teenage burglary suspect Chad Holley in March of last year, four face criminal charges. Philip N. Bryan, Andrew T. Blomberg, Drew W. Ryser, and Raad M. Hassan, pleaded not guilty to charges of official oppression and violating the civil rights of a prisoner.
The city doesn’t have to file its F5 forms until the conclusion of the case, even though one of the officers, Bryan, already lost an appeal of his termination.
"Seven officers lost their jobs today, and it's our intent that they never work in law enforcement again," Parker said when she announced their firings. "When our officers behave in an inappropriate manner, they will be disciplined."
Parker’s office declined a request for an interview.
State law requires policing agencies to report officer firings and background potential hires, but the system is not foolproof, Tim Braaten, executive director of TCLEOSE, said.
“There can be a problem if an agency entered into a gag order or agreement with the departing officer,” said Braaten, who retired after serving as chief of police in Victoria. “Then it’s up to the quality of background check the agency does.”
If the new agency doesn’t do some deep information diving, bad cops can be working the streets again.
The commission decertifies between 400 and 450 officers a year, according to Braaten, “and we only do that upon a criminal conviction.” The 9-member commission consists of nine gubernatorial appointees, and six of the nine are former or current members of the law enforcement community.
Any change to the reporting process would come from state lawmakers, but the officers’ unions pump money into the campaigns of the very lawmakers who could retool the reporting system.
“A call from a state elected official to TCLEOSE would have an effect on change,” Bradford said.
Sen. John Whitmire chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee, which has passed bills aimed at policing rogue cops and "gypsy" officers who move from one agency to another after getting into trouble.
"I thought we had handled all of that," said Larance Coleman, policy director for Whitmire, D-Houston. Coleman said he would check into what can be done to fix the transparency problem in officers’ state certification documents.
Sen. Mario Gallegos, a certified peace officer and criminal justice committee member, said that even a pending investigation should be noted on an officer’s state certificate.
When Parker fired the officers linked to the Holley case, for example, “you can’t just say they are guilty, but you can say there is a pending investigation,” Gallegos, D-Houston, said. “A hiring agency should know of something like that, then make its own decision on hiring.”
He vowed to “look at the situation and run it by some of my colleagues.”
Police and other law enforcement unions gave $615,000 to Texas state campaigns in the 2008 and 2010 cycles, according to campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Whitmire received $36,000 in police union money during that time, more than any other state candidate. Gallegos received $7,250.
Houston police were far and away the heaviest hitters. Together, the Houston Police Officers' Union and the Houston Police Retired Officers Association gave $210,000, or more than one out of every three dollars from the police unions. A statewide group, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, gave $85,000.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or email@example.com.
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Photo of Houston Police Department by flickr user .imelda, used via a Creative Commons license.