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Do we have too much police?

One thing that every candidate I talk to about crime in Houston agrees on is that we need for the various law enforcement agencies in Houston to work together better. Via Grits, it would seem that this is a statewide problem.

The Texas State Board of Pharmacy, which licenses and disciplines pharmacists, has its own. So do the state Department of Insurance and the Board of Dental Examiners.

The Mackenzie Municipal Water Authority, which supplies water to four small Panhandle towns, has one, as does the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, a private trade group. Concordia University Texas recently acquired its own.

Every organization that might conceivably come into contact with a scofflaw, it seems, wants its own police department. And in Texas, many get to have them.

“The joke at the Capitol,” said Tom Gaylor, who lobbies for the Texas Municipal Police Association, which has opposed the proliferation of policing agencies, “is that it’s often easier to identify those who aren’t police officers.”

In recent years, the peace officer designation has spread far beyond its original constitutional definition of constables, sheriffs, marshals and police officers. Since 1965, legislators have amended the state’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which sets out who can designate their own police department, nearly 50 times.

The result: Today there are three dozen types of agencies, institutions, boards, commissions and political subdivisions that can appoint their own law enforcement agents. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, which licenses police officers, keeps tabs on 2,615 separate law enforcement agencies.

These are not just hobby cops.

“In Texas, when you get a commissioned, certified police officer, you get the same person who has the ability to investigate crimes and the authority to arrest,” said Charley Wilkison, public affairs director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a statewide police union. “And they’re on the job 24/7.”

That means that on the average, each county in Texas has about ten unique law enforcement agencies operating within its boundaries. I’d bet Harris has a lot more than that. As Grits notes in his post, one big problem resulting from this is communication and coordination between all these agencies. Including, you may be surprised to learn, some that are not subject to some of the same regulations and requirements that public agencies must adhere to.

In 2006, a commissioned peace officer named Bobby Arriola was fired from Methodist Health System of Dallas, which boasts its own police department because of its affiliation with a medical school.

But when Arriola asked for the arrest report and other documents such as his personnel file, the hospital said they were corporate records not subject to public scrutiny. In a May 2007 opinion, the state attorney general agreed.

“The (hospital) system, including its police department, is not a governmental body subjected to the (Public Information) Act,” it concluded.

There’s a can of worms for you. All of this makes me think that the real problem isn’t interdepartmental coordination, it’s having too many departments in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s not a problem that can be solved by the Mayor or City Council.

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