By Kyle Gibson
Assistant Chief Investigator in Tarrant County
From the start of her first term in office, Sharen Wilson, the Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant County, was determined to improve each and every aspect of our office, including the attorneys, staff, and investigators. When the proverbial “fork in the road” presented itself in deciding how to improve the Investigative Division, CDA Wilson did not take the road less traveled; rather, she chose the one that had never been traveled. She sought to have the Investigative Division recognized by the Texas Police Chiefs Association Foundation (TPCAF) as a Texas Best Practice Law Enforcement Agency. This recognition provides a benchmark for professional Texas law enforcement and would demonstrate to the community our commitment to providing high-quality service. CDA Wilson knew she had a great team of investigators, and she wanted everyone else to know it too.
After two and a half years of work, our office was the first prosecutor’s office in Texas to earn this recognition, which was awarded December 17, 2021. This article documents the process we went through to achieve recognition with the hope that other prosecutor offices may be inspired to do the same.
What is the Best Practice Recognition Program?
The Texas Best Practice Recognition program (TBP) was started in 2006 and is administered by the TPCAF. It is a voluntary process for Texas law enforcement agencies to prove their compliance with 170 Texas “best practices.” These best practices were developed by law enforcement professionals for efficient and effective delivery of service, reduction of risk, and protection of individual rights. Unlike a national accreditation program, such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), the TBP program is designed specifically for Texas law enforcement agencies.
TBP’s basic philosophy is to make its requirements achievable, to assist agencies in compliance, and to provide usable resources to interested agencies. The program itself involves four basic stages:
• an internal review and development of policies and procedures,
• an independent review to prove compliance with best practices,
• an onsite review by independent assessors, and
• a committee review to award recognition.
More than 100 agencies have been recognized by TBP, and it is considered the new gold standard for Texas law enforcement.
Do we qualify?
Before we could pursue recognition, we first had to ask, are we a law enforcement agency? Well, yes, of course we are: Our office’s Investigative Division is comprised of 52 TCOLE (Texas Commission on Law Enforcement)-licensed, sworn personnel. But are we “law enforcement” enough to qualify for the recognition? It took some reflection to answer that question.
There are 170 best practice standards in 12 critical areas of law enforcement that need to be met. Those areas are:
• use of force,
• emergency vehicle operations and pursuits,
• search and seizure, and arrest, care, custody, and restraint of prisoners,
• domestic violence and employee domestic misconduct,
• off-duty conduct,
• selection and hiring,
• sexual harassment,
• complaint and internal affairs management,
• SWAT and high-risk warrant service,
• dealing with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, and
• property and evidence.
After a thorough review of what we do as investigators, we believed we could qualify for recognition even though there were a few significant areas which would not apply. We do not perform patrol functions, maintain a jail, nor operate a communications center. One of the great things about the TBP program is that it focuses on a more holistic approach in most areas. In other words, it demands that an agency have a policy on certain issues but does not dictate exactly what that policy says. The fact that we use the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department as our communication center and the county jail as “our jail” allowed us to meet most of the standards related to those areas—for example, that we have access to a 24-hour communications center and the use of two-way radios. We also ultimately made sure our policies reflected that.
Another area which initially caused some internal concern was property and evidence. Our office has a Digital Forensics and Technical Services Unit that receives computers, cell phones, storage drives, and other forms of digital media for examination from local law enforcement agencies. We do not have a property room or technician to receive and release these items, but we have a secure temporary storage room. We return items to the submitting agency as soon as the forensic examinations are complete and try to keep items no longer than absolutely necessary. Again, TBP’s flexibility allowed us to meet the standards related to a property room by having specific written protocols on controlling personnel access to it, documenting the release and disposal of items, and completing inventory audits and inspections.
After working through our concerns and developing a better understanding of the TBP process, we decided to pursue recognition and felt confident we could achieve it.
A key component and first step to obtaining recognition is to do a critical self-evaluation of your agency. While our standard operating procedures (SOPs) did meet some of the best practice standards, they were woefully insufficient even though we had updated them in 2017. We knew that a complete rewrite of every policy was necessary, along with the creation of quite a few new ones. It wasn’t so much that we were doing things wrong, it was simply that we could do things better. The TBP program provided a sample manual which we used as a template to create our own new policies.
And so began the discussions, debates, arguments, drafts, and rewrites. While this process was tedious at times, it was also a little cathartic. We reviewed everything we do, how we do it, who does it, and why we do it that way. The simple answer of “because we have always done it this way” was no longer sufficient. Every policy and procedure had to be justified. Duties were clarified and processes streamlined. Going through this critical self-evaluation truly made us a better and more effective agency. Slowly the policies came together, and our simple 54-page Standard Operating Procedures blossomed into a 221-page Policy and Procedures Manual with 39 policies in the TBP’s 12 critical areas. While we thought we had the bulk of the work completed, we really were still at the beginning.
It was extremely important to CDA Wilson that the entire Investigative Division supported the new policies. First and foremost, you must have enthusiastic support from investigative supervisors and command staff because there is no way to get a seasoned investigator to believe in something the leadership does not believe in. But our command staff and supervisors knew we needed to make these changes and were onboard from the beginning.
To get 100-percent buy-in from our line investigators, we developed a two-prong approach. The first prong was training. We made sure investigators understood the recognition process and why we were pursuing it. A few investigators viewed the new policies solely as a tool of discipline, just more ways to write someone up for a violation. However, most viewed them as a guide that provided the rules to the game so that they could succeed and perform their duties at a high level. Our old SOPs were vague in many areas, which led to inconsistent application depending on which supervisor an investigator reached out to. For example, there was not a lot of guidance in our existing use of force and deadly force policy; it was only eight lines long. Our parking policy was longer! We had no policies on active shooter response or investigator-involved shootings. How could we expect investigators to perform as expected when we did not provide them the expectations? Clear, thoughtful, well-written policies benefit everyone by preventing arbitrary decisions and holding each investigator to the same standards.
For the second prong, we established a policy review committee. The committee was voluntary, and more than a quarter of our investigators participated. One of the great benefits of working at a district attorney’s office is the wealth of knowledge and experience our investigators have. Our average number of years of law enforcement experience is 27, and we did not want to waste it. The committee met multiple times over a few weeks to review each policy. The meetings were streamed live via Zoom so all investigators could listen and send comments to the group. This process was extremely successful as it identified some policies that contradicted others, work areas that were not covered at all, and issues that were of particular concern to the investigators. These meetings also allowed supervisors to explain the reasoning behind certain policies, giving line investigators a bigger picture of the process. Many times investigators on the committee worked through a policy issue on their own with little input from a supervisor. After completion of the review and rewrites, the policies were issued to the entire investigative division.
With the policies in place, we needed to show TBP that we were following them. This is done by providing “proofs.” A proof is a way to verify we did what we said we were going to do or, more simply, that we followed our policy as written. It could be as simple as a training roster for a required course, a photograph documenting an item’s location, or the written policy itself. Many of our proofs were forms. We created more than 30 new forms to assist us in recording activities. It may sound excessive, but it was necessary. We discovered we were not doing an effective job at documenting equipment use and disposal because we did not have a system in place to do it. This deficit repeated itself again and again, where we were not doing something because we did not have a formal way to do it. New forms and their related procedures solved these issues. Our new protocols also included audits and reviews of the documented information, which now provide valuable information for management decisions.
One major focus area for best practices is training. The TBP program ensures that an agency is providing appropriate and required training in critical areas. A particular area we found we were lacking was training for new hires. We hire veteran peace officers, most of whom are starting a second career, having already retired from another agency, so the prevailing thought for many years was that there was no need to train newly hired investigators. Our critical self-evaluation revealed we were doing our new hires a disservice by not having a well-developed protocol to onboard them. There is a mindset change that needs to take place when a police detective becomes a DA or CA investigator. For example, most detectives are used to complete control over their cases, which is simply not the norm at a prosecutor’s office. We operate in teams, and one prosecutor has ultimate control of the case. Except for a few specialized units, we do not work to build a case—we work to improve an existing one, with the goal of increasing the chance of a successful prosecution. Additionally, trial knowledge for most new hires is limited to the few times they were called to testify in court. We needed to draw back the curtain early to allow new hires a behind-the-scenes look at what a prosecutor’s office does and why we do it. We implemented a core training program to formalize our onboarding and provided a method to ensure we were creating a solid, common foundation for our new investigators.
We also expanded our list of required trainings for each two-year TCOLE training cycle. We added defensive tactics, self-aid and buddy aid, and bloodborne pathogen training to ensure the safety of our investigators. Courses on implicit bias, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and mental health were included to ensure we are effectively serving our communities.
Our on-site assessment
With everything finally in place, our on-site assessment from authorities at TBP was set for the first week of December 2021. We were proud of the work we had done and felt confident we would pass. A normal assessment takes two days and typically involves policy review, employee interviews, a ride-along with a patrol officer, and tours of the jail, communications center, and property room. Our assessment was completed in just one day, with the exit interview the following morning. It was definitely not what we expected. We thought it would be more interactive, with the assessors questioning our chiefs. That never happened.
Instead, the assessors simply asked for a space to work and wanted contact only with our program manager. They asked to see our secure personnel and TCOLE file room, our temporary storage room, and the sheriff’s communications center. The two assessors spoke to a total of nine people. Overall, 69 on-site standards were reviewed, and we needed to make modifications to only 13 of them. Most of the modifications were resolved by adding a sentence or two to a policy to meet the standard. One involved simply adding “in writing” to a policy about notifying a supervisor. We ended up with 28 non-applicable standards, the majority of which involved the jail operations.
We were a little tense heading into our exit interview with the assessors. Because we had little contact with them the previous day, we were not exactly sure where we stood and what their recommendation to the TBP Review Committee would be. Our fears were relieved fairly quickly as they praised the work we had done. They too admitted they were not sure what they were walking into, as we were the first prosecutor’s office to seek the recognition. Overall, though, both assessors were impressed with our agency and would provide a positive report to the review committee. And then we waited.
The next two weeks were particularly long. The assessors had to generate a verification report to be sent to the review committee, who would then vote on awarding the recognition. We did not know who was on the committee or how they felt about our application. Would they view us as “law enforcement” enough? Did they want to limit the recognition to traditional agencies? Those questions lurked in our minds for 14 days until the email came: We were recognized!
We were elated to achieve this milestone, but our excitement was tempered somewhat by the realization of the work that lies ahead. The TBP Recognition is awarded for four years. We will have to submit annual reports and will be required to prove our compliance with the standards in that fourth year to keep the recognition.
The road was long. It took us almost two and a half years to reach our goal. We changed chiefs and assistant chiefs during this process and endured the chaos of COVID. Through it all we kept moving forward. Sometimes the progress was reduced to a crawl and at others it felt like a sprint, but we are exceedingly proud of our agency and the investigators we work with each day.
Our investigators now have a playbook to follow. They understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from their leadership. We have specific policies on performance appraisals, internal investigations, employee discipline, investigator appeals, and grievances that we did not have before. Policies not only provide a system of discipline but also hold our supervisors accountable to ensure fair and equitable treatment of the investigators they lead.
We no longer operate on the assumption that everyone knows what to do because they are experienced peace officers. This process forced us to not only look at what we do but also how we want to do it. New policies were created covering investigator duties, basic investigations, constitutional safeguards, search and arrest warrants, and warrantless searches and arrests. These new policies clearly define what our role is and how we do business. They keep all of us on the same page.
What did we learn that we can pass on to anyone else who might like to pursue recognition? First, make sure the team you assemble to work on developing new policies actually knows what investigators do. The majority of our initial team were familiar with the TBP process and had a wealth of law enforcement experience, but they were not knowledgeable of our particular office and the day-to-day work of a DA or CA investigator. This led to lengthy and occasionally heated discussions about practical procedures, which prolonged the actual development of policy. Insider knowledge is crucial.
Secondly, stay small. When we initially started, we just kind of got going without having a clear path and set goals. The task seemed overwhelming at times because we worked on too many of the policies at once. Give yourself time to focus on each policy. Our shotgun method required us to constantly revisit policies we thought were complete. It is amazing how many times we discovered a policy did not address an issue we thought it did or said something we thought it didn’t.
Lastly and maybe most importantly, include the office’s line investigators. The best thing we did was involve our investigators early. We never hid the ball but instead kept them informed on progress along the way. We used their time, talents, and experience to craft workable policies while simultaneously addressing their questions and concerns. It has to be a team effort to succeed.
For those agencies who may think they are too small to seek recognition, just remember that size does not matter! Any agency, whether it has two investigators or 82, can achieve the award. That’s the beauty of the program: It caters to your specific agency and the way you do business. Take a minute to read the list of recognized agencies on the Texas Chiefs of Police Association’s website (www.texaspolicechiefs.org/getting-started-with-recognition) and you will see a very diverse group with departments of all sizes serving both urban and rural communities. All agencies can benefit from recognition because it demonstrates to your community that you are committed to serving them to the best of your ability.
In the end, was it worth it? Absolutely. The process was necessary and long overdue. We felt good going into the assessment because regardless of whether we received the recognition, we had laid the foundation for our investigators and agency to excel. CDA Wilson is not seeking re-election, and her term ends this year. We hope whoever becomes our new criminal district attorney will respect the work that we have done, understand the effort it took to achieve, and ensure our office’s Investigative Division remains a Texas Police Chiefs Association Foundation Recognized Law Enforcement Agency.