A KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered a system allowing Texas law enforcement officers to keep their licenses, despite admitting to serious crimes.
While the number represents a small minority, state law allows repeat offenders to keep their badge or move on to other agencies across the state.
Rachel Legsdin knows this first hand. In 2013, an off-duty deputy with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office assaulted her at a downtown Austin bar. She said it started when the deputy and his friend said something crude.
“I gave him a piece of my mind and said, ‘Please leave me alone.’ I turned around, went to leave and the next thing I knew I had a pair of hands around neck. I was pushed across a crowded bar and held over the railing of a rooftop,” said Legsdin.
A picture provided by Legsdin shows a bruise around her neck. Austin police arrested Shawn Harris for the assault. When she arrived at the police station, she was told Harris is a deputy.
“I was terrified. As a victim going through it, it’s a quite unnerving experience,” Legsdin said.
Harris apologized in a letter and received deferred prosecution. If he stays clean for two years, the state will drop the charges. Harris kept his job, and declined to be interviewed for this story.
Legsdin doesn’t think it’s fair.
“I think that it was reduced initially to protect him from losing his job,” she said.
There are more than 100,000 licensed law enforcement officers in Texas. Digging through thousands of records over the past six months, a KVUE Defenders investigation uncovered at least 4,800 Texas law enforcement officers, at the state and local level, arrested for crimes since 2008.
At least 536 of those officers have been arrested more than once. Assault charges top the list, with more than 1,200 arrests. Most officers kept their law enforcement license or remain eligible to renew it.
That includes Dan Misiaszek, a former San Marcos police officer. The Hays County Sheriff’s Office arrested Misiaszek twice. The first arrest happened in 2010, for assaulting his wife. The second arrest happened in 2011 for deadly conduct after firing his gun toward a driver during a road rage incident, when he retired from the force.
Tim Young is the driver Misiaszek pulled the gun on during the incident.
“There was no reason for him to shoot at us run us off the road or attempt to take the law into his own hands,” said Young.
In both cases Misiaszek received deferred prosecution and the county later declined to prosecute. He remains eligible to work in law enforcement today. Misiaszek declined to be interviewed, but did tell the KVUE Defenders in January he has no plans to return to law enforcement.
“Two dedicated public servants spent five years trying to clear ourselves and we have cleared ourselves,” said Misiaszek.
While Misiaszek’s career ended with the San Marcos Police Department in 2006, he maintained his law state enforcement license for years after leaving the city.
Jim Harrington, founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project and a law professor at the University of Texas, believes an officer working with a criminal record jeopardizes public safety.
“Any time that officer presses charges against somebody else, that officer’s credibility will be challenged in court, the jury will look at that probably not believe it then, which means that you’re not solving crime,” said Harrington.
Notable Texas officer arrests numbers:
- Assault: 1,205
- DWI/Intoxication Manslaughter: 1,043
- Theft: 436
- Failure to maintain training: 1,201
- Murder/Capital murder/manslaughter: 29
(Source: Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, arrest reports)
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement licenses officers. By law, it can only revoke an officer’s license if they’re convicted of a felony. That means, even if an officer admits to multiple misdemeanor assaults, they can stay on the force in Texas.
Of the 4,870 Texas officers arrested since 2008, 9 percent, or 437 officers lost their licenses.
“Where you see people, somebody with a criminal offense, how are they working again? Many times they have fulfilled whatever administrative action was taken on their license and they come back and they want to work again and the system allows them to do that,” contends Kim Vickers, TCOLE’s executive director. “Even though they have a criminal record.”
The Texas Municipal Police Association isn’t surprised with the numbers.
“I think in law enforcement we are we put ourselves in harm’s way in a number of different ways and one of those is being falsely accused of different types of things,” argues Kevin Lawrence, TMPA executive director.
TMPA represents about 23,000 officers in the state. Lawrence contends officers, like the general public, aren’t perfect and deserve second chances.
“They’re human beings, none of us are perfect. We have right to expect our police officers to behave reasonably and reasonableness is measured by the circumstances that were occurring in that instant when the officer took that action,” said Lawrence.
Legsdin believes the system needs to change. “That just does not seem like you should be having criminals upholding the law,” said Legsdin.
While the state did not suspend Deputy Harris, suspensions do happen, just not often. According to TCOLE records, over the past 4 years roughly nine percent of Texas officers arrested had their licenses temporarily suspended.