Reconstruction

Can legislative action repair the troubled Department of Public Safety?

It’s been a year since a still-unidentified arsonist lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the Texas Governor’s Mansion. The Greek Revival columns out front are still black from the smoke, but crews have torn out damaged walls, cleared away debris and stabilized the foundation. Now, with a mix of federal stimulus funds, state money and private cash, officials say they’re ready to rebuild.

The Texas Department of Public Safety underwent a razing of its own this session, and plans to rebuild the state’s top law-enforcement agency, with its history of scandals and chronic mismanagement, are under way. The Governor’s Mansion burned on DPS’s watch. Whether or not it’s fair to say that DPS could have prevented the arson, the fire added fuel to many critics’ calls for a thorough reconstruction of the agency.

“Unless you have Fortress America, a large number of people guarding constantly, that sort of stuff is going to happen,” Scott Henson, creator of the criminal-justice blog Grits for Breakfast, says of the fire. “But internally, the agency was almost megalomaniacally seeking power. It was resented by local law enforcement, and I think that’s contributed a lot to the willingness of people to go after DPS. Best time to kick ’em is when they’re down.”

The time was ripe for reform. The Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews each state agency every 12 years and recommends corrective action to the Legislature, had released its report on DPS just a month before the fire. The report described security lapses and structural inefficiencies; the fire made the point more dramatically. Weeks later, a legislative review panel harshly criticized DPS, a billion-dollar agency with more than 8,000 employees, as disorganized and outdated. Lawmakers were taken aback to hear Col. Tommy Davis Jr., the department’s director, avow that DPS was “operating better than I’ve ever seen it” in the 43 years he’d worked there. Davis’ career was over by August.

A $1 million study by the private firm Deloitte & Touche followed. The conclusion, in short, was that DPS needed a thorough overhaul. The department “had gone a little stale,” says Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a member of the Sunset Commission who wrote the sunset bill to restructure the agency. “Obviously there were some very troubling patterns.”

“It’s been a culture where there’s a lot of resistance to change,” says Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat who carried the Senate bill to remake DPS. “There’s a good-old-boys system.”

Unlike those of other major agencies up for sunset review this year—including the departments of Transportation and Insurance (see story, p. 26)—DPS’s sunset bill managed to survive the partisan stalemate that killed hundred of bills in the last week of the session (see story, p. 21). The bill modernizes DPS’s driver’s license and vehicle inspection divisions, setting “civilian business” goals for shorter lines at licensing offices and less hold time at call centers. It puts the Division of Emergency Management, which deals with disasters like last year’s Hurricane Ike, under DPS’s management rather than the governor’s.

Perhaps the most significant reform is the creation of an inspector general to investigate complaints and report directly to the Public Safety Commission, a five-person oversight panel appointed by the governor. Women and minorities at the agency have long complained of being passed up for promotions. The need to “transform the culture” of DPS, as Hinojosa puts it, was made painfully clear in early May when Col. Stanley Clark, who’d replaced Davis as the agency’s director, resigned after three women employees leveled charges of sexual harassment.

“I hope that [incident] will help people recognize that for years DPS has had these issues,” says Phillip Durst, an Austin lawyer who represented DPS Sgt. Thomas Williams in a successful lawsuit last year. Williams, once among the elite detail guarding Gov. Rick Perry and his family, accused DPS of retaliating after he filed complaints alleging sexual harassment of a Capitol trooper and race and sex discrimination within the agency. A jury awarded Williams $620,000. (The state has filed an appeal that is scheduled to be heard this fall.)

Henson says that the sunset legislation could help turn the beleaguered agency around. But much depends on the quality of new leadership at DPS, where huge turnover among the upper command has left a vacuum. “These things always depend on how they’re implemented,” Henson says. “There’s no magic bullet. That depends on who’s in charge and what they do.”

Victoria Rossi is a writer and legal aide living in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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