Friday, February 25, 2005

Texas wants "pop-up" militias, too

Scott Henson -- who works on police accountability at the ACLU of Texas and whose blog, Grits for Breakfast -- picks up this fascinating story from the Texas Observer. FYI: Grits just won a 2004 Koufax Weblog Award (run by Wampum, out of my future home state of Maine) for Best Single Issue Blog, along with Talk Left):
Imagine a Texas where the affluent are so fearful that they retreat from the public commons to gated communities protected by exclusive police forces, who, weapons at the ready, are only accountable to the neighborhood association. It appears Rep. Tony Goolsby already has. His HB 246 will allow neighborhoods and apartment complexes to privately hire their own special police force, to be awarded all the same powers as the gun-slinging, handcuff-toting city and state police. If enacted, this latest special police force designation will be the 34th special police category in Texas and would boldly ignore a Senate admonition to quit creating them.

T.J. D’Aquino, CEO of Crime Strike, a private security company operating in Goolsby’s district, asked the representative to file the legislation in order to elevate for-profit residential security company personnel to the level of full-fledged police officers. The newly appointed officers would have the authority to make arrests for anything from misdemeanors to felonies. (They will not be allowed to write traffic citations.)

The burgeoning industry of special police in Texas includes a force for the Board of Medical Examiners and one to enforce water code. Last session, the Lege authorized a special peace force for the State Board of Dental Examiners. (You can just imagine the television series potential with that one.) The dental cops conduct investigations and then, as certified peace officers, write search warrants and make arrests, for example, of a renegade dentist operating without a license in a garage. These certified peace officers are also required to use their powers to prevent offenses from being committed at any time, in any place, whether by a dentist or some other menace to society, like say, an optometrist. Fortunately, they can be armed 24 hours a day. Special police officers not busy rounding up crooked dentists or any of the other “special” targets often seek outside employment. As certified peace officers they enjoy full-blown police power—all the time. One popular side gig is as a bouncer at a club.

The numerous special police forces scattered around the state have less accountability than state and city police departments. No single state agency oversees the special police forces nor does there exist a standard set of guidelines for them. And while Goolsby’s bill does establish limited oversight and some standards of training for his new force, public interest groups like the ACLU are not pleased. “It’s not the same as a department with a chain of command and policies,” said Scott Henson of the Texas ACLU. “Some of these smaller agencies are very underdeveloped in infrastructure and supervisory techniques.” He said the officers receive less rigorous training than state and city police departments. Henson also warned that some neighborhoods may be surprised by the potential cost of having their own police force, especially if the neighborhood association finds itself on the defendant side of a lawsuit.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, in its interim report last December, recommended that the Legislature “cease and resist” creating special police forces and consider creating one category to include all specialized police forces in order to clarify their functions.

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