Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune
By Karen Brooks Harper
The Texas Department of Public Safety is instead asking lawmakers for $381.5 million to upgrade its current facilities with better technology, dormitories and cafeteria for trainees from across the state.
The Texas Department of Public Safety is scrapping its proposal for a $1.2 billion state-of-the-art active-shooter training facility, aiming instead at a much lower target of $381.5 million to update its current campus with housing and renovated buildings, DPS Director Steve McCraw said this week.
First appearing in the department’s budget request as a $476 million “down payment” on a six-year commitment to the multiphase project, the proposal was jettisoned by the DPS and reduced to “a key need” for better facilities at the current training campus outside Waco, McCraw told The Texas Tribune.
“We’re just looking in terms of across the board — what are we focused on?” McCraw said Thursday after testifying to the Senate Finance Committee about aging facilities and lack of adequate housing and food services at the campus. “The problem with the phased approach that focuses on a reality-based training facility [is] … we still don’t have any place to put people. You’ve got to have a place to sleep. You’ve got to have a place to eat.”
The agency is still facing criticism for its role in the bungled multiagency response to the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde last year, when hundreds of officers from several agencies, including the DPS, took 77 minutes to breach the classroom where a gunman shot to death 19 students and two teachers.
More outcries came when the agency’s proposal for the new training center became public.
The proposed active-shooter facility was part of a presentation made last year by McCraw to captains at the Texas Highway Patrol, an arm of the DPS, according to meeting minutes obtained by the Tribune.
The minutes said the facility would include the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program — an active-shooter response training system developed 20 years ago at Texas State University in San Marcos that has been the national standard for active-shooter training for a decade.
In testimony to the Legislative Budget Board in October, McCraw pitched the project as a six-year proposal to turn the nearly 200-acre Williamson County DPS Tactical Training Center complex in Florence into a Texas law enforcement academy for use by agencies across the state.
“You play like you practice,” he told them at the time. “You need to practice in a real environment.”
A “state-of-the-art” active-shooter facility would immediately enhance active-shooter response by Texas law enforcement, McCraw said in his Oct. 4 presentation.
No more discussion
On Thursday at the Capitol, McCraw confirmed briefly that the larger project was no longer on the table. There was no further discussion of the plan he had laid out in October.
Senate budget writers expressed support for the newer idea of simply upgrading the training center for $381.5 million, as well as for considering legislation that would require intensive active-shooter training for law enforcement officers in all types of jurisdictions.
The Williamson County DPS site opened in 2003 with a track and urban street grid, similar to a residential or downtown area, for emergency vehicle training; a firing range; and classrooms for both recruit training and continuing education. There is no housing or cafeteria, in spite of it being used by officers from across the state, officials said.
The new plan would be a single-phase upgrade for dorms, a cafeteria and technology upgrades for classrooms and other facilities for troopers, sheriff’s deputies, local police and other responders seeking required or additional training at the 20-year-old facility, McCraw said.
Finance Chair Joan Huffman, R-Houston, noted the incurred expenses and lack of access by some departments with lower budgets that currently would have to pay for lodging and food on any training trips.
McCraw said there were “nuances” that added to the problems, such as break-ins on patrol cars parked at hotels and the need for guards in some cases, that would be alleviated by on-campus housing and cafeteria services.
State Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, a committee member and retired game warden, said the loss of training time by officers driving back and forth from campus to sleep and eat is “not good business.”
“The surplus that we have right now is best spent on capital construction and things of that nature,” Flores said, referring to a $32.7 billion cash surplus the state can spend in addition to its general revenue for the next two years. “When we have facilities like this, this type of expenditure is very appropriate.”
It would also be useful in the event legislators decide to require more active-shooter training, which would increase the need for residential services, McCraw said.
Asked after the hearing whether any lawmakers had contacted him with concerns about the bigger project, McCraw said, “not really.”
“There’s always priorities in terms of when there’s only so much money,” McCraw said. “You can only ask for so much, and they’ve been very gracious right now with the state employees [proposed across-the-board pay raise] and we’re mindful of and grateful for what they provided us.”