Plan to Merge Agencies Worries Texas Safety Officials

Left to right: Officer Mario Martinez, Sergeant R. Richman and officer L. Lyons on duty.
Left to right: Officer Mario Martinez, Sergeant R. Richman and officer L. Lyons on duty.

A money-saving proposal to combine state agencies that oversee police and firefighter training and local jail operations has public safety officials statewide worried about their future. 

After Gov. Rick Perry’s budget proposal to fold the state's Commission on Jail Standards, the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, and the Commission on Fire Protection into one agency, state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, filed a bill last week that would do just that. The individual agencies would be abolished, and a new agency, the Public Safety Licensing Commission, would be formed to take over their roles. 

Lawmakers say the measure would save the state millions. But police, jail officials and firefighters say the initiative would stretch one agency too thin. The resulting lack of oversight could put the state at risk for expensive lawsuits because of poor jail conditions and could endanger the lives of police officers and firefighters because of subpar training and standards. 

“It’s a bad, bad idea,” said Charley Wilkison, spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. 

Although each agency is related to public safety, each performs very different duties. The jail commission develops standards for the 245 county jails across Texas. It inspects each one annually and approves new jail construction plans. 

Sheriffs who operate county jails across the state say guidance from the commission shields them from lawsuits over inmate conditions and helps protect their jailers. Sheriff Christopher C. Kirk of Brazos County said the commission is mostly made up of county officials and law enforcement officers who understand jail operations. 

“I can’t see that a commission charged with oversight of three different agencies” would have as much knowledge, Kirk said. 

The law enforcement standards commission develops certification standards for police officers, jailers, 9-1-1 dispatchers and security officers. It also provides training and tracks law enforcement data on racial profiling, identity theft and asset forfeiture, and it investigates departments that report bad data and revokes the licenses of officers who commit crimes. 

The commission licenses about 100,000 police officers, jailers, sheriffs’ deputies, 9-1-1 dispatchers and security guards. Timothy Braaten, the commission’s executive director, said he was unsure how a new agency that does all that plus the duties of the jail and firefighter commissions would work. 

“We know a little about jail personnel,” he said. “But we don’t know anything now about the physical facility, and most cops don’t know much about fire either.” 

Wilkison said the safety of police and the public would suffer if the agencies were combined. “You’re just a few bricks away at any time of undoing the work of generations,” he said. “And we think that’s exactly what would happen.” 

The Commission on Fire Protection certifies and regulates training for more than 36,000 firefighters. Before the commission existed, there were several firefighter deaths each year, said Mike Higgins, chief of staff and legislative director for the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters. Last year, there was one. 

“I think it’s mainly due to the training and equipment we get through the commission,” Higgins said. He worries firefighters will get short shrift in the new commission. 

But Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry, said combining the agencies would save Texas about $5 million over the next two years — another chip away at the $15 billion to $27 billion budget shortfall. Most of the savings, she said, would come from eliminating duplicative staff positions. But, she added, “The core missions of each agency will remain intact.” 

And Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said folding the agencies together makes sense in light of budget constraints. “Everybody has to do things wiser and smarter,” he said. “I just happen to think this is one of those things that are wiser and smarter.”

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