The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Police Oversight at the Lege

By Jordan Smith, December 27, 2002, News

Considering the hullabaloo this year over the application of Austin's new police oversight system, it's interesting to note that Rep. Paul Moreno, D-El Paso, has filed a bill seeking to mandate some form of police oversight in all Texas municipalities with populations of over 200,000. Moreno's HB 279 -- which languished in committee during the 2001 session -- would create in each qualifying city a "community relations board" that would "receive and dispose of" complaints filed against police officers.

These boards, made up of seven appointed members -- including one police officer with a rank of captain or above, one attorney, and one doctor -- would accept appeals of decisions by police internal-affairs investigations. Complaints could also be filed directly with an oversight board if the city's police department lacks an internal affairs division or its equivalent. The disciplinary decisions of the boards would be final and would trump even the decisions of local civil service commissions. "If [a civil service] commission issues a decision that is inconsistent with a community relations board's disposition of a complaint based on the same act, the board's decision prevails," the bill reads.

"This would basically address the problem of rogue police officers being slapped on the hand for serious offenses," said Moreno spokesman Robert Grijalva. While Grijalva says that "99.9%" of police officers are good and responsible, this bill would weed out bad apples and take the role of ultimate disciplinarian "outside the realm of a city protecting its police officers." Moreno's bill is a somewhat pared-down version of an oversight bill perennially filed by Houston Democrat Ron Wilson. Wilson's plan -- which has languished at the legislative wayside four times running -- would only apply to counties with a population of 2.8 million or more (that is, to Harris Co.), but would give the oversight board subpoena power. Oversight champions in Austin argue that subpoena is the true way to give teeth to the process.

Predictably, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas do not particularly favor Moreno's bill. "This thing has been filed so many times it's old enough to have a driver's license," said Charley Wilkison, director of C.L.E.A.T.'s political and legislative division. To Wilkison, police oversight already exists in the form of checks and balances throughout the criminal justice system. "We believe sincerely that ... it exists in Texas, and we think it should," he said. "Through the power of democracy, when you vote in City Council members and commissioners. This includes the district attorney and the Texas Rangers and the attorney general -- they are all part of that structure."

But Grijalva says Moreno is confident the bill will gather steam this session. "We intend to pack some additional pistols," he says -- hinting that the bill may find support from some of the Lege's more moderate Republicans. "This is not intended to put law enforcement under the microscope," he said. "Police associations are very powerful and it stands to reason that lay people would have power on their side too."

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