How Texas’ Powerful Police Union Went to War Against Criminal Justice Reform

By Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly

Illustration by Bolora Munkhbold; DNY59/Getty

Illustration by Bolora Munkhbold; DNY59/Getty

On May 26, the day before the Texas Legislature came to a close, state representative Joe Moody took to the front mic in the House to lament the death of what had once seemed like a no-brainer, bipartisan piece of criminal justice reform—to reduce the number of arrests police make for minor infractions, such as traffic offenses. Partly inspired by the case of Sandra Bland, the legislation had already been the subject of seven votes on the House floor. Moody had tried to drag the legislation’s battered body across the finish line, but he couldn’t overcome the aggressive lobbying of CLEAT, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the state’s largest police union.

Surrounded by Democrats and Republicans, Moody made clear that he thought CLEAT had fought dirty. Speaking from prepared remarks, he told the House that “lies destroyed this effort.” CLEAT had systematically and cynically misrepresented the legislation. “I regret that underhanded tactics are being rewarded. I assure you, that’s a shortsighted strategy,” he said. State representative Harold Dutton joined in to say that CLEAT had been “dishonorable” and was “completely wrong and completely out of step with most Texans.”

It’s highly unusual to hear lawmakers call out a specific interest group on the floor like that—especially one as powerful as CLEAT, which endorses both Republicans and Democrats. The bad feelings were mutual. “We’ve been big supporters of Joe Moody,” Charley Wilkison, CLEAT’s executive director and chief lobbyist, told Texas Monthly. Moody had even carried some of CLEAT’s favored bills this session. “We’re not ever going to meet with him again.”

CLEAT is one of the strangest interest groups in Austin. Its leadership espouses a shifting mix of left-wing and right-wing rhetoric. As one of the most influential unions in the state, it bitterly opposes attempts to crack down on public unions, and strongly opposes attempts to cap local property taxes. Wilkison sees the right-wing, corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation as one of CLEAT’s foremost enemies. He sounds almost like Bernie Sanders at times, describing his opponents as “pawns in this big game on behalf of the billionaires who are profiting on the criminal justice system.”

Like any union, CLEAT’s main duty is to protect its members. But its role has changed in the era of Black Lives Matter and police accountability. As criminal justice reformers have shifted focus from sentencing and prisons to how police interact with citizens, especially following Sandra Bland’s death, CLEAT has gone into beast mode.

On April 11, CLEAT uploaded a video to YouTube highlighting its work at the Capitol. It was titled “They Hate Us.” The video told CLEAT’s membership that “the war against the brave women and men of Texas law enforcement has reached the Capitol.” Police officers “are being questioned for sacrificing your life. Risking your life just to be compared to terrorists.”

Attacks on police, the video explained, included a panoply of bipartisan policies, including the Sandra Bland legislation and an effort to close the “dead suspect loophole,” a part of Texas code that allows police to keep permanently secret files about suspects that won’t face charges in court—which unintentionally includes people killed by police. CLEAT focused fire on measures that restricted police authority, and fought like hell. By the end of session, all of the measures were dead, and advocates were left bemoaning the ineffectual session they’d had.

The trouble between CLEAT and Moody started with the dead suspect loophole, which Moody has been trying to close for two sessions. Wilkison says CLEAT believed that Moody was attempting to provide relief to the victims of police shootings by allowing them access to some information, and the organization supported a bill that would have allowed family members to view video of the incident in question. But the group vigorously opposed releasing any other information, arguing that it would expose police officers to unfounded allegations.

At a critical moment in the session, Moody made clear in an email chain with CLEAT that his goal was to increase transparency and accountability around police shootings. Moody maintains that this was his public intent from the beginning, and that there’s no conceivable reason for CLEAT to believe otherwise. But Wilkison told Texas Monthlythe organization had been “lied” to. “We no longer trusted the messenger,” he said. Police officers experience “fear and loathing when we enter the seat of power in Austin,” Wilkison said. “They know in a heartbeat they can turn on us.” Moody had become one of the betrayers.

After that, it was “war,” Wilkison said, and whatever else Moody was involved in was collateral. The effort to restrict Class C arrests had previously been part of a compromise bill carried by Republican James White. When it died, Moody tacked it onto a Senate bill as an amendment. But he used language that didn’t restrict cops’ ability to arrest at all—it simply allowed judges to dismiss charges if there had been no compelling public safety reason to conduct the arrest or an ongoing breach of the peace.

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