Greg Abbott vs. the Child Predators of Williamson County

by Published on
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott

On Sunday, Eric Dexheimer at the Austin American-Statesman looked at Greg Abbott’s prosecution of online child predators and found something peculiar. Abbott has long touted his efforts against child predators, and why wouldn’t he? It’s obviously very important work, and it has the added bonus of being very politically popular. But when Dexheimer studied the number of people the AG’s office has prosecuted for attempting to solicit minors, he found that since the start of 2012, more than two-thirds of the office’s busts happened in Williamson County, just north of Austin.

Three law enforcement agencies in Texas have been designated Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces—the Houston and Dallas police departments have their own, which operate primarily in their respective metropolitan areas. Abbott’s AG office has responsibility for most of the rest of the state, some 134 counties. Yet the vast majority of cases Abbott prosecutes take place in the Austin metropolitan area—and one county in particular. “Almost six out of 10 of all cases over the past decade,” Dexheimer reports, “have been brought in a tight geographic circle around Austin.”

In addition to being an extraordinarily narrow concentration of state resources, one result is that over the past three years, three-quarters of the defendants accused by Abbott’s office of stalking children online have been from the Austin metropolitan area, in effect making his office more a local police unit than state agency.

There are a couple of reasons the Attorney General’s office might prefer to use Williamson County to arrange busts. There’s the jurisdiction’s tough-on-crime reputation, and an easy relationship with local police departments. There’s also the fact that it’s a short drive from the office—coordinating a bust in El Paso, of course, would require a much greater expense of both time and money for Abbott’s officers.

But it doesn’t seem like an ideal use of resources, as a deterrent or a general policy. We may hope that the herd of child predators in Round Rock has been thinned significantly, but what about cities far from the attorney general’s task force headquarters, where prospective sex offenders know they are significantly less likely to get caught if they look for prey in Uvalde and not Leander?

While there is nothing improper about the unit’s limited focus, it raises questions about the agency’s commitment to pursue offenders statewide. A listing of the office’s child pornography investigations, by comparison, shows those cases are dotted throughout the state.

The article is a somewhat troubling look at an important state law enforcement initiative, and a system which incentivizes racking up numbers of perps over a more wide-ranging deterrence strategy. But it’s also a reminder that Abbott’s current office is a double-edged sword in his bid to occupy the governor’s mansion.

He’s been able sue the Obama administration a lot, which Republicans love. More than any other figure in the state, he has the ability to adopt a tough stance on the border issues that are coming back in vogue. And when he’s not running against the federal government and drug cartels, he can highlight his fight against even more universally hateable figures—child molesters, deadbeat dads and corrupt politicians. This is Texas, where the image of the no-nonsense lawman has a lot of appeal.

But his time as attorney general comes with a downside. He’s been in the post for 12 years—an eternity in politics. He’s been the head of a sprawling office, with thousands of employees, and has taken on sweeping and diverse responsibilities, which means he has a lengthy and complex record to examine. Media and opposition researchers will be picking apart both Davis’ and Abbott’s personal and professional lives, but there’s a lot more to pick over when it comes to Abbott’s tenure.

There will be a great number of stories about the office he ran, the way that he prosecuted cases, and the wisdom of his policy approaches. That helped sink Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a social-conservative warrior who ran for governor last year and was once seen as a member, along with Abbott, of a rising class of Republican state attorneys general. Newly-purple Virginia is not Texas, of course. But it’s something to watch for. The San Antonio Express-Newsequal pay story was a sort of opening shot—what’s next?