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As politicians nationwide rushed to reiterate their support for police, Texas elected officials figured prominently in the calls for a greater societal embrace of officers and more protections for first responders who perform some of the toughest jobs.
“As Texans and Americans mourn the loss of our men and women in uniform, we must continue to remember that police officers put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety and our freedoms,” Abbott said in a statement a day after the July 7 Dallas shooting.
But while grateful for the rhetoric, law enforcement groups have seen some disconnect between the professions of support and the track record of Texas elected officials in listening to their concerns.
Most notable was the 2015 legislative session, when lawmakers — including Patrick and Abbott — enthusiastically approved the open carry of handguns by licensed Texans despite opposition by many of the state’s law enforcement officials.
As the 2017 legislative session approaches, law enforcement groups say they’ll be asking lawmakers to consider revising the open carry law, as well as looking at restoring funding for programs that help police do their jobs. They say they’ll focus on bread and butter issues like funding officer training and maintaining retirement and death benefits.
“We’re always thinking about what it is that’s desperately needed,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “And we try to weigh in what it’s like for that legislator to expose themself so much, to put their name on the ballot, to go out and open themselves up to public and political ridicule.”
Shootings in Minneapolis, Dallas and Baton Rouge have inspired calls to review Texas’ policy allowing registered individuals to openly carry firearms in most public places. Supporters say openly displaying firearms is a Second Amendment right, while detractors say it can lead to confusion during a disturbance.
The Texas Republican Party’s platform may foreshadow a new open carry fight next year. The state’s dominant party urges passage of “constitutional carry” legislation, which would remove many restrictions on accessing and keeping firearms.
Last session, law enforcement groups told lawmakers open carry would be a disaster for them, especially in a crisis. When lawmakers didn’t heed them, Wilkison’s group pushed for training, strap requirements, visible licenses and other provisions to be part of the legislation.
“We were hurling rocks at the tanks the whole time,” he said.
Lawmakers didn’t budge, Wilkison said.
After the shootings, Dallas Police Chief David Brown commented that open carry laws can complicate telling the difference between the “good guy with a gun” and the criminal.
CLEAT won’t push for a repeal of open carry but will make similar suggestions from last session to make the law work for law enforcement, Wilkison said.
“(Guns) bring with them a responsibility to maintain control, even in a struggle,” he said. “They bring responsibility to maintain control in daily life, walking and talking.”
Wilkison said he’s prepared for “constitutional carry” arguments.
“I expect to stand in committee and say all our rights are abridged everyday,” he said. “You still can’t even yell fire in a theater. So my freedom of speech is abridged just like yours. There is a greater good called the community. We’ll try to make our stand there.”
Amid that debate, law enforcement groups also expect to tackle funding woes.
In a previous session, lawmakers raided the state’s auto theft fund to help balance the budget. Law enforcement agencies relied on grants drawn from that fund to investigate and prevent local auto thefts and burglaries, said Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, legislative director for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.
The state also tightened the flow of money to agencies by reducing how much it doled out in funds for training from a fund supported by court filing fees, Louderback said. Getting more funds from those resources would help law enforcement, he said.
“It’s being diverted and used for other purposes instead of law enforcement purposes,” Louderback said.
A more urgent need has been finding the resources to address mental health in county jails, the sheriff said. It’s been a problem especially in rural Texas, Louderback and his colleagues have testified in legislative hearings. Sandra Bland’s death in the Waller County Jail in 2015 highlighted the problem and pushed lawmakers to demand changes.
“We’ve got to have additional mental health funding for our local mental health authorities for our mental health problem in our jails,” Louderback said. “That’s still a top priority for us.”
Employee benefits are also a top priority for officers, said Joe Gamaldi, second vice president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, who expressed concern about defined-benefit plans being turned into a 401(k) plan, making it defined contribution.
“If it went to a defined contribution plan, what we’re essentially looking at is whatever that officer had in his 401(k) at the time is what the family has, and it says well thank you for your service, here’s the money that was in his 401(k). Good luck,” Gamaldi said.
A change would not be fair, he said.
“If that were the case, the five Dallas police officers that were murdered in cold blood, their families would essentially get nothing, after everything is said and done,” Gamaldi said. “So for us, it’s being secured in our future and knowing that our families will be taken care of if God forbid something were to happen to us in the line of duty.”
While those efforts have yet to emerge, state and federal officials are proposing legislation that could be seen as both symbolic and substantive.
Under that proposal, someone who killed or conspired or attempted to kill a public safety officer, a federally funded law enforcement officer or a federal judge would be eligible for the death penalty as well as a mandatory minimum 30-year-sentence for murder and 10 years for attempted murder, according to Cornyn’s office.
Though killing a police officer in Texas is already a death-eligible offense, some states don’t have penalties as harsh as what the Senate bill calls for, Cornyn’s office said. Under the Senate bill, the U.S. Department of Justice could pursue its own criminal case against a defendant, were it inclined.
“Most states allow for the death penalty — but many of the states do not include a mandatory minimum of 30 years, meaning the criminal could get off with a lighter sentence,” a Cornyn aide said via email. “Since current federal law does not allow for prosecution of the murder of state and local police officers, this legislation would be important for cases where the state governments are unwilling or unable to prosecute the crime.”
The Senate bill also would protect officers from lawsuits and extend firearm rights.
“This bill would prevent officers from being sued for intervening to stop a crime of violence, and it would give off-duty law enforcement additional authority to carry firearms, defend themselves, and prevent violence even when not in uniform,” the aide said.
Gov. Greg Abbott proposed Monday that state lawmakers send him a bill extending hate crime protections to law enforcement and increasing criminal penalties for any crimes in which the victim is a law enforcement officer. Though a bill by state Rep. Jason Villalba is in the draft phase, it remains unclear the effect it would have on prosecutors who would try these cases.
“The governor’s proposals send a clear message to anyone considering targeting law enforcement officials that their actions will be met with severe justice,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement.
Texas already enhances penalties for crimes against people because of their race, sex, religion, sexual preference and other factors. Law enforcement officers should be added to the hate crimes list, said Gamaldi.
“Why shouldn’t it be for profession?” Gamaldi said. “In our case, it’s because we wear blue that people are attacking us. But where clearly the motive is to kill or harm the police officer, they should be subject to strict penalties. We have the rule of law in this country, and for someone to attack police officers simply based on their profession, it’s unconscionable.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Top image: Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Austin Police Association President Kenneth Casaday speak with state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, right, on Feb. 12, 2015, at the Texas Capitol. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera