CBS 19 Investigates: Are ETX law enforcement officers getting enough training?

We've seen several high profile cases lately where law enforcement officers' actions came into question. CBS 19's Field Sutton went looking for answers about how training is done and who decides what's important.

The state only sets a few minimum standards via the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE). The commission sets a minimum of forty hours of continuing education every two years for most certified peace officers--police, sheriff's deputies, constables and others.

It's up to individual departments to determine what most of that training is and whether more gets done.

Lonny Wilder with Texas-based target solutions develops training videos meant to meet departments' continuing education needs.

"Every single decision they make from the moment they get out of that car is absolutely critical," Wilder said.

For years Wilder has been mixing real stories with re-enactments and the state-mandated curriculum to educate first responders.

"The training of law enforcement officers is critical and vital," he said. "And not just for their continuing education and  their certification, but also for their safety and for the well-being of  the community at large that they serve."

Wilder said police work itself hasn't changed that much and, instead, it's the rest of the world that provides new challenges constantly.

"One of the things that we train police officers is to always assume that everything you do from the moment you put that uniform and that duty belt on and go out is going to be captured," he said. "So that works for the officer and that can work against the officer."

It has worked against officers at least twice in the last few months. One incident happened in Whitehouse when a woman was walking on the wrong side of the street and she just didn't want to stop.

The other was the shot heard around the world when a Rains County deputy shot and killed Candy the cow dog for barking. The two incidents share nothing in common aside from being caught on camera.

Wilder said that's something you can't just take at face value.

"The camera doesn't lie, but there may have been something that took place off camera," he said. "It may have been a conversation. It may have been some activity that you didn't see."

Still, the Rains County incident is already in the court system. The woman from Whitehouse has discussed a lawsuit. And Wilder said litigation, more than anything else, is what calls training into question.

"A whole lot of questions that will be supported by not just what training they took, how they took it, but also how it's being reported," he said.

CBS 19 decided to look for answers to those questions--not just specific to the incidents, but all across East Texas law enforcement. Thirteen identically worded public information requests went out to police and sheriff's departments in five counties.

Analyzing the data, we started by looking at yearly hours spent on continuing education. The baseline is 20 hours a year under the state's mandate.

Whitehouse P.D. came in the lowest, reporting an average maximum of thirty hours per officer annually. That number is also flat. It's been the same since 2003.

Twelve of the thirteen departments we asked for information complied. The one that didn't send anything was the Rains County Sheriff's department whose only response was that county attorneys would be reviewing the request."

Our analysis revealed that most other departments have increased training hours per officer in the last several years. But the one that stood out was the Rusk County Sheriff's Department.

"We have told our officers 'If there's some kind of training you want, please request it,'" Sheriff Jeff Price said.

Price is new on the job. He said he took office with a training program that was behind schedule and in danger of violating state minimums. By next month he expects all the mandatory training to be done.

"So the next twelve months will be training them up in whatever areas they need to be bolstered in," Price said.

Those deputies are receiving about five times the minimum training despite the fact that departments across the state are losing outside funding to pay for it.

"Doing  it in house, it costs me just the officer's time," Price said. "I don't have to worry  about travel expenses. I don't have to worry about paying for tuition  and stuff because we're doing it solely in house."

Rusk county is paying the lowest per-hour rate for training we found at $2.90. Most other East Texas departments are paying between $6 and $8 for each training hour.

Just down the road in Kilgore they're also doing more with less. One state agency says it's been a success. With a training budget that's lower than it used to be, Kilgore P.D. was recently accredited under the the Best Practices Program administered by the Texas Police Chief's Association.

"We actually revamped our entire policy," Assistant Chief Roman Roberson said.

Roberson said the department is voluntarily exceeding state training standards across the board.

"It's important to us," Roberson said. "I mean life is valuable to us as it is to everybody and we want to make sure that if we are put in that situation that we use proper judgment and we do the right thing."

Kilgore officers recently dealt with a dog in a case that could have been similar to what happened in Rains County. Roberson said a new policy covering "response to resistance" may have changed the outcome. That policy says humans and animals are the same when it comes to using force.

"A lot of times that can be non-lethal," Roberson said. "In this situation it was, and the officers exercised good judgment, fell back on their training and elected to use the taser."

The dog lived, which takes us back to what happened in Rains County. Wilder said there's one other thing Candy's death and the incident in Whitehouse have in common.

"Did [the Whitehouse officer] do all he could to communicate everything he could have communicated  before he actually physically engaged? All of these things, both of these incidents, I think training was certainly in place that would support that," Wilder said. "The decision making process based on the time they had was the equation that went out of balance."

Wilder said that's where repeated training becomes important. Just like the officers who found their way into training videos, the ones who serve and protect in East Texas are only human and we all need to be reminded how to handle the unexpected.

"It only takes one incident for the public to rise up and say 'Gee, we need more training for these guys.' And I think that's happening with a lot more frequency."

The incident in Rains County has done that. The Texas Humane Legislation Network is pushing for "Candy's law." The one goal of that law is to mandate that part of the 40 hour requirement every two years has to be spent in training on how to deal with animals.

Fort Worth P.D. has pioneered that kind of training but it is not available to most departments. Wilder said Target Solutions will probably produce a canine interaction training course.

Almost every department we worked with on this story specifically mentioned wanting to get training like that in place.


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