87th Legislative Wrap-Up: The Fight for Texas Law Enforcement
The 87th session of the Texas Legislature adjourned “sine die” after 140 days. The following account by the CLEAT Public Affairs team, is a brief legislative wrap-up to inform you on how we fared this session.
COVID-19 PRESUMPTION (SB 22)
Our biggest issue during this session was COVID-19 and enacting a line of duty presumption for those who had contracted this terrible disease. Over 100 peace officers and corrections officers have died due to COVID, and it is clear that these officers contracted this disease at work. But workers compensation insurance companies have consistently denied claims and left survivors without benefits.
When COVID-19 hit Texas, officers were unable to follow the “stay at home” orders issued by the governor and local officials. Officers had to continue reporting to work, responding to calls, and safeguarding those confined in county jails and prisons. It soon became evident that there was not enough PPE for the officers in Texas. Most of the PPE was diverted to health care workers. CLEAT realized the problem and spent close to $500,000 from our emergency/disaster funds to purchase PPE and personally deliver it to officers at over 300 agencies across Texas.
In March of 2020, CLEAT was the first to call on Governor Abbott to issue an executive order declaring a presumption for officers contracting COVID and provide that it was a line of duty illness. That order never came, and the only option was to seek relief from the legislature this session by passing a presumption bill.
Without a presumption, employees have to prove they contracted the disease at work which is very hard to do. With a presumption in place, the burden then shifts to the workers compensation insurance carrier. Presumption ensures that workers compensation insurance carriers would have to prove the employee did not contract the disease at work.
During the interim, CLEAT contacted many legislators and obtained bi-partisan support for a COVID presumption bill. Lawmakers generated a number of letters to Governor Abbott at CLEAT’s request about the need for the COVID presumption. When the session began, at least five bills were filed in the Texas House and two in the Texas Senate. It was clear upfront that the cities, counties, and worker’s compensation insurance companies were going to work very hard to defeat a COVID presumption bill, or at the very least water it down so that the presumption would be very hard to claim. We were diligent throughout the process to protect the families who have suffered and ensure the best bill possible would pass.
SB 22 by Senator Drew Springer (R) and HB 541 by Representative Jared Patterson (R) began to make their way through the process. Both bills were very different and, as drafted, had many provisions that needed apparent fixes. The bills were changed a number of times throughout the process. CLEAT was involved every step of the way. We were able to fix problems with language at every turn and were vocal about all of our concerns. When the bill was hammered out in a conference committee, those concerns were addressed. And in the final weekend of the session, both houses adopted the conference committee report and sent the bill to the governor.
A number of the issues that we worked to address were provisions:
- to ensure that all detention officers were covered,
- that those who had not already filed a claim would not be hampered by expired deadlines and could file a claim after the law takes effect,
- that persons who had died from COVID but had not taken an FDA-approved test before passing away could still be covered based on the physician’s diagnoses, and
- ensuring that a number of other roadblocks to the presumption were removed from the bill.
DEFUNDING (HB 1900/SB 23)
After the City of Austin made substantial shifts to police funding last year, preventing defunding became a top priority for the Texas Legislature. A number of bills were filed addressing this issue, and CLEAT testified in support of every one of them, and we worked to ensure a number of concerns were addressed.
Of the bills introduced, two were passed. SB 23 by Senator Joan Huffman (R) and Representative Tom Oliverson (R) dealt with defunding by large counties. HB 1900 by Rep. Craig Goldman (R) and Senator Huffman dealt with defunding by large cities.
One issue that concerned us was pension funding. The actuarial soundness of defined benefit pension plans is affected when staffing is substantially reduced. With that in mind, we were able to draft an amendment added to HB 1900 by Representative Abel Herrero (D) on the House floor. The amendment will ensure substantial staffing cuts do not negatively impact defined benefit pension plans. The amendment was included in the bill as it finally passed.
RETIREE QUALIFICATION (SB 198)
One of the issues we have heard from retirees is that even though the law allows retirees to carry their handguns under LEOSA, there is no requirement that departments allow them to qualify annually to obtain their firearms proficiency certificate. If a retired officer has a certificate, then their last department has to issue them LEOSA credentials.
CLEAT worked on behalf of our retiree members to fix this with the passage of SB 198 by Senator Jane Nelson (R) and Representative James White (R). This bill would allow a retiree unable to qualify through their former department to qualify and obtain a firearms proficiency certificate through a private firearms instructor. Once the certificate is obtained, the retiree’s agency would have to provide LEOSA credentials.
VEHICLE E-TAG BILL (HB 3927)
Over one million fraudulent temporary vehicle tags have been printed from the Texas E-Tag system (administered by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, DMV) by criminals who are not in the business of selling motor vehicles.
CLEAT was part of a working group with the Texas DMV during the past year. It became abundantly clear that our law enforcement agencies tasked with exposing the compromised e-tag system and holding criminals accountable were not going to be assisted by state agencies charged with ensuring these systems are running efficiently.
The current system contains many loopholes and allows anyone to pose as a car dealer and access the e-tag printing system. The printing of these tags has been tracked back to vehicles involved in an array of serious crimes such as homicide, robbery, human trafficking, narcotics, and much more. Most concerning is the massive officer safety issue this causes as the fraudulent tags do not appear fraudulent to an officer in the patrol car running the tag through TLETTS. Unfortunately, we know of at least one officer who has died in the line of duty where the suspect vehicle was bearing a fraudulent e-tag. It was clear to CLEAT and a number of our members that this needed to be fixed.
The task would not be an easy one as those who represent car dealers are a well-financed lobby in Austin. Several bills were filed to address a number of DMV issues, and CLEAT began to battle its way through the Texas Legislature to ensure that language addressing the e-tag issue was included.
HB 3927 by Representative Cole Hefner agreed to file the bill that became the “vehicle” to address our concerns. In the end, the bill crossed the finish line and is on the way to the governor.
The bill will allow the Texas DMV to terminate access to the e-tag system for any “dealer” who appears suspicious in the system as it pertains to the number of tags they are printing. As with many of our bills, there is still work to be done, and CLEAT will continue to see that the issues are worked through, the DMV interprets the legislation appropriately, and that the officer’s safety aspect is taken care of.
As you can imagine, after a number of high-profile incidents involving deaths, including George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Botham Jean, and even the revival of Sandra Bland, literally a hundred bills were filed calling for police reform. We are happy to report that most of these died in committee.
A few issues had the life of “Lazarus” and were revived through amendments to other bills. We had to scramble to either strip off language, change language, or outright kill these bills at the very last minute.
Most importantly, we successfully killed all of the bills that sought to abolish or limit qualified immunity.
Bills to limit arrests for Class C offenses, limit the use of no-knock warrants, limit or abolish collective bargaining or meet & confer, limit civil service appeals or require a disciplinary matrix for each department, and limit or change resisting arrest all failed this session.
We had to operate from the standpoint of being reasonable when addressing these issues. In the end, a few bills did pass, but only after complicated negotiations that resulted in criminal penalties being stripped from the bill or language being added that preserved the “objectively reasonable” standard of Graham v. Connor.
With these changes, we could support policy statement bills that mirrored what is already in place for most Texas law enforcement agencies.
Below is a rundown of some of the “reform” bills that passed this session:
SB 24 by Senator Joan Huffman (R) & Representative Greg Bonnen (R)
Amends a number of statutes to strengthen background investigations and hiring procedures for peace officers. Would allow prospective employers to obtain employment records from previous agencies electronically. A CLEAT amendment was added to protect the confidentiality of those records.
SB 69 by Senator Borris Miles (D) & Representative James White (R)
Amends the Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) to provide a duty to intervene to stop or prevent another peace officer from using force against a person if the amount of force exceeds that which is reasonable under the circumstances (Graham standard) and the officer knows or should know that the force is not required to apprehend the person suspected of committing an offense. The bill also amends the CCP to provide that a peace officer may not intentionally use a choke hold, carotid artery hold, or similar neck restraint in searching or arresting a person unless the restraint is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death of the officer or another person.
SB 2212 by Senator Royce West (D) & Representative Senfronia Thompson (D)
Amends CCP to impose a duty to render aid when a peace officer encounters an injured person in the line of duty. Requires officer to call EMS and provide first aid or treatment to the person to the extent of the officer’s skill and training. Provides an exception if making the request or providing treatment would expose the officer or another person to risk of bodily injury of if the officer is injured and physically unable to make the request or provide treatment.
HB 929 by Representative Carl Sherman (D) & Senator Royce West (D)
Amends body camera procedures to require policy on collection of body cameras as evidence and to require a peace officer equipped with a body worn camera and actively participating in an investigation to keep the camera activated for the entirety of the officer’s active participation in the investigation unless the camera has been deactivated in compliance with the department’s policy. CLEAT opposed more stringent provisions in this bill that were removed.
Every ten years, state agencies are subject to review called “Sunset.” Legislation has to pass to renew the agency for another ten years. During the year before the legislative session, the Texas Sunset Commission conducts a review that includes the participation of the stakeholders. TCOLE was up for sunset in 2021. CLEAT actively participated in this process throughout 2020 and met for hours with Sunset staff about TCOLE. In the end, most of our recommendations were rejected. Instead, the Sunset Commission saw sunset as a way to enact major reform, including granting TCOLE expanded authority to conduct independent investigations of law enforcement misconduct, subpoena officers during these investigations, and suspend a license without a hearing among other things. CLEAT was opposed to these changes from the very beginning.
When the TCOLE Sunset bill was filed (HB 1550), CLEAT met with the bill author, Representative John Cyrier, and expressed concerns. Our concerns about HB 1550 were again rejected out of hand. No changes were made to the bill when it was considered by the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. CLEAT was the ONLY organization to stand up and openly testify against the bill. TMPA/FOP testified “On” the bill and, in their remarks, said that “they supported the direction the bill was going.” Don’t take our word on it? The hearing is online.
We communicated our concerns to many members of the legislature, and when the bill was scheduled for floor debate, we publicly worked against it. We were the only organization to put out a press release and social media posts against the bill. Ultimately, the bill did not have support to pass, and the bill author withdrew it from consideration. An informational article about this fight can be found here.
When another sunset bill, SB 713 by Representative Dawn Buckingham (R), came to the House floor, Representative Cyrier amended the bill with complaint language that was opposed by CLEAT. SB 713 ultimately became the bill to renew TCOLE for another two years. When the final version of the bill was drafted, we were successful in removing the complaint language, and the only change was the TCOLE renewal date of 2023.
This issue will be back during the interim, and we will see another Sunset bill in the 2023 legislative session.
All in all, CLEAT fought hard to protect your hard-earned rights, benefits, and working conditions. We were not afraid to stand up and be heard on important issues that affect you, even though it might be politically difficult to do so. Some may say they are working “behind the scenes” for officers, but we know that standing up and being vocal about the work of our brave men and women is the most important thing we can do during a legislative session. Your hard work and sacrifices do not go unnoticed, and we will always be “ON THE RECORD” expressing that sentiment to our state legislators. The bottom line is CLEAT had your six throughout the session. Stay Safe.
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