Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wants to take control of all incidents involving the use of lethal force by police officers throughout the state. Automatic state review is advisable, but it should augment, and not replace, local investigations in the officers’ own jurisdictions.
Paxton wrote an opinion piece that was published in the Austin American-Statesman June 11. In it, he asked the Legislature to give his office the authority to investigate deaths in police custody and other police misconduct allegations.
The legislative session begins in January, and lawmakers start prefiling bills Nov. 9.
In his column, Paxton noted that local district attorneys work closely with police departments to prosecute crime. Currently, when someone dies during an interaction with police, the officer’s agency investigates and files a report with the attorney general’s office.
“But under current law, that’s where my authority ends,” Paxton wrote. “My office is not empowered to investigate these deaths, nor has it been given the jurisdiction to prosecute such cases.
“Given that fact, it’s not reasonable to expect local prosecutors to easily turn to investigate and even prosecute those with whom they work on a regular bases. … Apparent conflicts of interest in these horrific cases will only serve to further erode public confidence in our law enforcement institutions.”
Actually, local officials can ask for an indepth review from the attorney general’s office, although they routinely make such requests of the Texas Rangers, an arm of the Department of Public Safety that is independent and presents the results of its work to the agency that requested it.
This is not the first time Paxton has sought control over cases of police force. A bill was presented to the Legislature in 2015, but it would have disqualified local prosecutors from any jurisdiction over such cases. The bill was not presented to lawmakers for review.
More involvement from the attorney general could be valuable, but it should add to, and not replace review by other agencies, especially the local departments that have immediate supervision over the officers in question. It is possible, after all, for an officer to be exonerated by the state but still face sanction for violating local procedures. State review should not isolate or insulate officers from internal investigations by their own agencies.
Local supervision also ensures that final authority can remain in the hands of the people who deal directly with the officers and who live under the laws and ordinances that the officers enforce. The people can force local commissions to demand accountability of their police forces by demanding accountability of those commissions. In the unfortunate event of a death involving police, voters can demand reforms, and vote officials out if they don’t respond. That pressure can help ensure that incidents will be investigated properly.
The ultimate assurance that alleged misconduct will be reviewed and corrected is local control by an active electorate. In a true democracy, no hand is stronger than the one that feeds the ballot box.