Abbott’s Executive Orders: What They Mean For Texans

About those eight executive orders from the Governor of Texas Thursday:

Were they an artful dodge of a sudden impulse to grab guns? Were they designed to close dangerous loopholes in existing law? Are they place-warmers for future reforms to be suggested by either of the two task forces set up by the Governor and interim study committees?

It depends on who you ask regarding Gov. Greg Abbott‘s issuance of executive orders pertaining to mass violence. We listened to several voices in the hours following the release of these orders and came up with our own takes on what they could mean for Texans and their Second Amendment freedoms.

Order No. 1: Within thirty days of this order, the Texas Department of Public Safety shall develop standardized intake questions that can be used by all Texas law enforcement agencies to better identify whether a person calling the agency has information that should be reported to the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network.

While not uncommon to have procedural questions for those taken into custody, the takeaway here is the funneling of information to iWatch, which is run by the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network, an initiative of the Texas Department of Public Safety (e.g. the state troopers). iWatch is an outgrowth of Texas’s implementation of Fusion Centers which collect and share law enforcement data. DPS’s final product will determine what this executive order means for Texans. There have been many concerns over privacy and removal of Due Process rights regarding these centers. For example, in 2011, the Legislature under Gov. Rick Perry passed HB 2234 which is intended to prevent the collection of non-criminal information based solely on political, religious, or social views — a rare moment of cooperation between the left and right side of the aisles.

Order No. 2: Within thirty days of this order, the Department of Public Safety shall develop clear guidance, based on the appropriate legal standard, for when and how Texas law-enforcement agencies should submit Suspicious Activity Reports.

As of now, compliance with iWatch is mostly voluntary. DPS now has leeway to make reporting to Fusion Centers practically mandatory.

Order No. 3: Within sixty days of this order, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement shall make training available to educate all law-enforcement officers regarding the standards that will be developed pursuant to Order No. 1 and Order No. 2.

Gov. Abbott did not leave everything in DPS’s hands, which is a wise separation-of-powers practice. But it should be noted that, in this order, another commission with a board appointed by the Governor will develop and administer the training. In other words, the Office of the Governor will have complete control over this process, too. Like with DPS in orders 1 and 2, we will have to wait and see what TCOLE comes up with under the Governor’s direction. Nonetheless, this is the appropriate vehicle for training and examination.

Order No. 4: The Department of Public Safety shall create and conduct an initiative to raise public awareness and understanding of how Suspicious Activity Reports are used by law-enforcement agencies to identify potential mass shooters or terroristic threats, so that the general public and friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and classmates will be more likely to report information about potential gunmen.

Any “teeth” given by this order to DPS depends on how orders 1-3 are implemented. This could result in a more public “see something/say something” campaign.

Order No. 5: The Department of Public Safety shall work with the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on ways to better inform schools, students, staff, and families about the importance of Suspicious Activity Reports and how to initiate that process.

Same thoughts as above in Order No. 4.

Order No. 6: The Department of Public Safety shall work with local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, school districts, and others to create multidisciplinary threat assessment teams for each of its regions, and when appropriate shall coordinate with federal partners.

While this is already taking place, requiring a regional approach in step with federal authorities may amplify existing efforts. Many voices were raised in the recently concluded 86th Legislature about mental health reforms opening the door for a funneling of public school students into psychiatric drug prescriptions or unfair labeling/flagging of students with certain interests (e.g. shooting sports or strict adherence to a religious sect) as potential safety risks to their peers. See our previous coverage here and here.

Order No. 7: The Department of Public Safety, as well as the Office of the Governor, shall use all available resources to increase staff at all fusion centers in Texas for the purpose of better collecting and responding to Suspicious Activity Reports, and better monitoring and analyzing social media and other online forums, for potential threats.

In short: staff-up at Fusion Centers.

Order No. 8: Beginning January 1, 2020, all future grant awards from the Office of the Governor to counties shall require a commitment that the county will report at least 90 percent of convictions within seven business days to the Criminal Justice Information System at the Department of Public Safety. By January 1, 2021, such reporting must take place within five business days.

This may require some calling around to county leaders, but it would seem that counties are not complying with DPS regarding local and district court decisions. Given: many Texas counties are quite small — we’ve observed a few that still use thermal-paper fax machines to receive and transmit certain reports. Complying with another state mandate can be prohibitively difficult when your county only has a couple of hundred taxpayers and a tiny staff. Whether non-compliance is based on principle or staff limitations remains to be seen. 

From the hip: These orders are mostly fixes to existing programs in place. They are executive orders, and as such give plenty of authority to the executive branch to comply. Our earlier advice to watch the legislative interim committees for any significant policy shift still stands. Agree or disagree with the existing law, the practice of Fusion Centers, or Gov. Abbott’s recent statements, he has exercised executive orders well-within the confines of the executive branch of state government, which is to be applauded.

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