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What Do Cops Want From Texas Lawmakers?

The Texas Senate chamber.
The Texas Senate chamber.

With the legislature at work in Austin, constituencies of all kinds are working to make their wants and needs clear. The Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive editor, Kevin Lawrence, says his wish list focused less on what he wants from lawmakers, but what he hopes they won’t do.

Specifically, Lawrence says the 28,000 rank-and-file law enforcement officers who make up his membership don’t want their jobs to get harder. That’s how it’s felt, he says, as high-profile police shootings and other controversies have put law enforcement under a microscope. The result has been what he considers “unreasonable” expectations for law enforcement.

“We have to remember, they’re human beings, they’re going to make mistakes. They’re not going to be perfect,” Lawrence says. “And I think that’s what we need the legislature to understand: Reasonableness needs to be the standard, not perfection.”

Lawrence is also worried state lawmakers might move to limit what police can do. Like arresting people for the lowest level of crimes, which Lawrence says can help police uncover more serious offenses.

There’s been a push to bar police from arresting people for offenses that don’t carry any jail time. Reform advocates say poor people and people of color are disproportionately the ones who get arrested when they could be issued a citation instead.

Lawrence is also worried lawmakers may restrict civil asset forfeiture. This gives law enforcement the ability to seize cash, cars and other property they think are connected with criminal activity, even if they can’t win a criminal conviction against the property’s owner in court.

Civil libertarians say that goes too far. When the legislature last met, conservative and liberal lawmakers introduced legislation to limit and even ban the practice, though none of the bills passed. One proponent of curtailing the practice was Tarrant County’s Konni Burton, who lost her senate seat in last November’s election. This year, it’s unclear whether a similar push will be successful.

Lawrence says it’s a useful tool to battle organized crime, and should be left intact.

“It’s a way of taking a civil action against criminals,” Lawrence says. “Even though we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a crime, we can prove with a preponderance of the evidence that they are involved in a criminal conspiracy.”

What Lawrence does want from lawmakers is to make sure the pension funds officers rely on in retirement are secure. In the last legislative session, after Dallas and Houston failed to find a local solution to fix looming shortfalls in their public safety retirement programs, lawmakers handed down changes to shore them up.

Fort Worth is the latest Texas city to grapple with pension woes, though the city’s leadership and labor groups were able to craft a deal together that saved the city from having to go through state lawmakers to fix a looming $1.6 billion shortfall. On Friday, voting closed for Fort Worth’s public employees on a proposal to fix the fund, and the deal won their approval.

Beyond that, Lawrence hopes elected officials in the legislature and in local governments think about ways to make policing a more attractive career, especially for people of color and women.

“Only about ten percent of our cops in this state are females,” Lawrence says. “By the time they get to the age where they’re eligible, somehow or another, women have already discouraged law enforcement as a career path.”

Hiring cops is harder these days, he says. Policing’s brand has taken a hit in recent years, the job’s gotten more complicated and monitored, and the strong economy means employers have to do more to attract workers — and that includes police departments.

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.