Bargaining the Badge: How Hundreds of Accused Texas Officers Avoid Prison

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: KXAN

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 22/05/2019

Credit: Jody Barr, David Barer, Ben Friberg, Josh Hinkle

Project description:

Across Texas, hundreds of law enforcement officers have permanently surrendered their peace officer licenses in the past four years. A KXAN investigation of 297 of those surrenders uncovered nearly all the officers were accused or charged with a crime. In almost every case the officers used their license as a bargaining tool by agreeing to surrender it as part of a deal to avoid jail or prison. Those officers’ offenses included sexual assault of children and women in custody, abusing prisoners and arrestees, taking bribes, dealing narcotics to prisoners, lying about the circumstances of a police shooting and destroying evidence.


Impact reached:

State law limits the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement’s (TCOLE) authority to permanently revoke an officer’s license, unless he or she has been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. As the law currently stands, the high bar of obtaining a conviction puts district attorneys in a tough position if they know they want to get the officer out of law enforcement, according to experts. The law is forcing district attorneys to make plea bargains.

We discovered Texas has the most licensed peace officers of any state, yet other states like Florida and Georgia decertify far more officers per year than Texas. Those states allow their police licensing boards broader discretion to punish officers not only for the conviction of a criminal offense but also for the commission of a crime.

Texas lawmakers could give TCOLE more power in deciding to revoke a license. If the state licensing board could revoke a license based on evidence of misconduct or the commission of a crime, rather than a conviction, the number of license revocations would go up, according to experts.

Now, a Texas lawmaker’s office is conducting its own investigation into what KXAN uncovered. Rep. Jessica Gonzalez, D-Dallas, and her staff began requesting information from TCOLE during our investigation. Gonzalez sits on the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, a panel with oversight of TCOLE licensing rules. Gonzalez acknowledged there is a disconnect when state law allows licensing boards to hold other occupations, such as doctors, lawyers, plumbers and cosmetologists, accountable for conduct that doesn’t amount to a criminal conviction. The lawmaker raised the possibility of introducing legislation in 2021 to give TCOLE more authority to punish peace officer license holders for the mere commission of a crime.

Techniques/technologies used:

In the eight months it took to complete this project, KXAN uncovered the system of deals by analyzing records obtained from more than 100 public information act requests filed at all levels of state and local governments, including the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, county and district courts, as well as local, county and state law enforcement agencies. Peace officer licenses are issued and maintained by TCOLE. All law enforcement officers at the municipal, county and state level, except for state corrections officers, must be licensed. KXAN reviewed 297 permanent surrender cases in Texas from 2015 through mid-2018. In nearly every case, the peace officers were accused of or charged with a crime.

We built a database of the 297 officers that permanently surrendered their license. We paid about $250 for the TCOLE records. Many of the requests we made were ultimately free because we spent time negotiating and narrowing our requests to avoid cost estimates. We completed that database, which included charges against the officers, the nature of the offense, criminal case outcomes, jail time, and the officer’s previous department, using records obtained through public information requests filed with district and municipal courts, police and sheriff’s departments, as well as cities, counties and state agencies.

The data did not exist in database form. We had to create the database from scratch using all types of records obtained through the Texas Public Information Act. Some records printed and sent in the mail, other records were transmitted by email.  We had to digitize and read everything, and we manually inputted the data ourselves. The TCOLE records we used were scanned documents in PDF form that, in many cases, were handwritten. The KXAN investigative team conducted all data analysis for this project.

What was the hardest part of this project?

In many cases investigations into police officers were closely guarded by their former departments. We encountered many departments, especially in rural areas, that kept poor records and had little to no understanding of the state’s public records laws. Many departments and district clerks blocked our requests with prohibitive cost estimates and by sending the requests to the Attorney General’s office for rulings that took months to return.

The only indication KXAN could find of possible misconduct in many of these cases was noted in a portion of the file TCOLE maintains for each delicensed officer titled “summary of the reason for permanent surrender.” It’s a sheet each officer is supposed to provide, but that does not always happen. It is not always clear what level of punishments those officers may have faced. It is also more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain records of police misconduct when charges are not filed against the officer. KXAN found more than two dozen cases in the last four years in which police officers or jailers permanently surrendered their licenses to avoid prosecution or to end investigations into possible misconduct.

The digital project featured the full series, along with several embedded videos of extended police camera footage and video reports produced exclusively for digital audiences in some of these cases. We also highlighted specific examples in separate case pages, giving users access to documents and more details to better understand the issue. We also included interactive maps and data components to explore the scope of this statewide problem.

What can others learn from this project?

It is important to note the huge effort made in requesting and analyzing records. We filed more than 100 record requests for this project, and they were not boilerplate requests. Each request was unique and many were submitted by fax and handwritten letter. We did not write a few template record requests and blast them out by email across the state. These requests were made individually and often required ample time with records custodians on the phone to explain how records were kept and to negotiate costs.

Every expert we spoke with was surprised by the data and trends we uncovered. We have found no other reporting that has amassed these records, discovered the common trend and dug into the origin of the problem.

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