If noncitizens can serve in the military, Johnson said, they should be able to serve as peace officers in law enforcement agencies across the state. His Senate Bill 376 would allow just that.
Many police departments throughout the country are struggling with officer shortages, and the Dallas Police Department hasn’t been spared. Allowing permanent U.S. residents to serve as police officers could give the hiring pool a much-needed boost, Johnson said.
“Whether it’s sheriffs or members of the city police force or other forms of peace officer, it’s going to greatly expand the pool from which law enforcement can draw to boost its ranks,” Johnson said. “Presently, police departments in particular are having a great deal of difficulty staffing at the levels that they need to to provide the level of safety that people want. In fact, they need more people to provide safety for their own officers. So, it’s a pro-law enforcement, pro-safety law.”
There have been similar efforts in the past, but none have come to fruition in Texas. In 2018 for example, Rep. Hubert Vo, a Harris County Democrat, filed House Bill 1091, which would have allowed permanent U.S. residents who were honorably discharged from the military to become peace officers in Texas.
The Houston Police Department advocated for HB 1091 at the time. “We are under no illusions that this will end the shortage of officers,” the department wrote. “Even if every honorably discharged legal permanent resident were to apply, we would still be searching for qualified people. But the need for potential officers, especially from diverse backgrounds, must be addressed, and this is a population we’re ignoring for no justifiable reason.”
“We need to get past the political fear of noncitizens contributing to the state." – Sen. Nathan Johnson
Another bill filed in the Texas Senate this year would do virtually the same thing as HB 1091. But Johnson doesn’t think the law should be so narrow.
Johnson said that approach may seem politically safer, but it makes more sense to pass broader legislation. “We all support veterans. We all support employment for veterans. Veterans have demonstrated their allegiance to this country,” Johnson said. “I think, however, it is neither rational, nor fair, nor even politically necessary, to limit service as a peace officer to people who have served in the U.S. military.”
Doing so significantly narrows the hiring pool for police departments. Johnson said he would vote for narrower legislation if that’s all that was left on the table, but he’s confident his bill will pass.
“It’s just nonsensical,” he said. “We need to get past the political fear of noncitizens contributing to the state. And I think we can. I’m optimistic for this.”
He said public safety is important to Republicans and Democrats alike, so he thinks he’ll be able to garner bipartisan support for SB 376.
Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said the city’s police department is still several hundred officers short of being fully staffed. He said DPD has about 3,100 officers, but it needs between 3,600 and 4,000. “A good operating status would be 3,600 to 3,700, so we’re maybe 400 to 500 off from where we need to be,” Mata said. Current officers are leaving faster than the department can hire and train more. It takes some 18 months to get new officers through training and onto the streets. At this rate, Mata said it will take at least five years for the department to reach adequate staffing levels.
Another problem is officer retention. Officers are retiring earlier these days, Mata said. Now, they generally retire between the ages of 53 and 56. They used to retire between 58 and 62 years old, he said.
“If we could put in policies that would help retention of those senior officers to stay three to maybe five more years than they had planned to, that would help us in that five-year plan of catching up in hiring,” Mata said. “You’ve got to stop the bleeding.” If the department can’t, it will continue having to play catch-up. And there’s not a lot to play catch-up with.
The biggest problem, Mata said, is that there aren’t enough people in the hiring pool. “The number of those individuals who would walk in the door because being a police officer is what they’ve always wanted to be is much smaller,” Mata said. “And everybody is needing officers. That talent pool is smaller and yet everybody’s trying to get them. … So, it’s a constant battle with every major police department across the city and even the suburbs that are surrounding you.”
Johnson’s bill could give police departments more options. Mata said as long as there were enough steps in place to help determine who is being hired, he wouldn’t oppose a law allowing permanent residents to become police officers.
To Johnson, hiring permanent U.S. residents isn’t much of a gamble. “These are people who want to be here who have passed significant, substantial vetting processes in order to have the status. We’re not taking a risk here any more than we are with anybody else,” Johnson said. “By the time they get hired, we can count on them.”