AUSTIN (Nexstar) — One officer was accused of slamming a girl to the ground and breaking her front teeth. Another allegedly beat a man who had been sleeping outside a YMCA. In another case, a corrections officer allegedly lit an inmate’s cell on fire during an attempt to get him out of the cell.
Out of hundreds of cases, KXAN found just a dozen officers were sentenced to time behind bars.
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Across Texas, hundreds of law enforcement officers permanently surrendered their peace officer licenses in the past four years. A KXAN investigation of 297 of those surrenders has discovered nearly all the officers were accused or charged with a crime – most often felonies. And, in most cases the officers used their license as a bargaining tool by agreeing to surrender it as part of a deal to avoid jail or prison.
“What it appears is that police officers are being treated differently than a person who would be charged with the same crime that is not an officer,” said Kali Cohn, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Prosecutors have to balance the “huge gamble” of taking law enforcement cases in front of a jury with making sure bad actors don’t work in that profession again, said Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore. Sometimes, that means making plea deals where officers have to give up their licenses.
Unlike some other states’ police licensing departments, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement has limited ability to permanently revoke an officer’s license without a conviction of a felony or certain misdemeanors.
Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said officers shouldn’t lose their licenses over accusations without a conviction.
“I’m not saying that we don’t have a fairly high bar. Don’t we want to have a fairly high bar?” Lawrence said.
At least one Texas lawmaker’s office is conducting its own investigation into what KXAN uncovered. Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, raised the possibility of introducing legislation to give TCOLE more authority to punish peace officer license holders for the mere commission of a crime.
“Essentially these officers have a ‘get out of jail free’ card and the law needs to be applied evenly to everyone. You and I, if we commit these same crimes, we aren’t able to get away with them just like these officers are,” González said.