Q: As we settle into the new school year, police officers in my district have been asking if there are any changes that impact them. Did the 87th Texas Legislature pass any laws that affect peace officers?
A: Yes, the 87th Texas Legislature was as busy as ever; here are a few key laws that will impact school districts and peace officers.
House Bill 929, effective September 1, 2021, imposes new requirements related to the activation of body worn cameras deployed by peace officers. This bill amended Texas Occupations Code Section 1701.655, to require law enforcement agencies to adopt policies that require peace officers who are equipped with body worn cameras to keep them activated for the entirety of an officer’s participation in an investigation. In non-investigatory situations, the cameras may be turned off. As a result of HB 929, it is reasonable to expect peace officers to be recording more video than ever before. This means there will be more video that needs to be stored and preserved in accordance with applicable state law and records retention schedules. District administrators should make certain they work with their police departments to gauge how much additional storage space is needed to accommodate the extra video data and budget accordingly. Retention schedules can be located at https://www.tsl.texas.gov/slrm/localretention/schedule_ps.
Senate Bill 1359, also effective September 1, 2021, addresses mental health leave for peace officers. This bill amends Chapter 614 of the Texas Government Code to require law enforcement agencies to adopt policies providing mental health leave for peace officers if they experience a traumatic event in the scope of their employment. The policies must provide objective standards for when a peace officer is entitled to mental health leave, must not reduce an officer’s pay, must state the number of mental health days available to an officer, and must provide for some level of anonymity for peace officers who take mental health leave. The policies may provide a list of the mental health services available to peace officers, but it this is not required.
Importantly, much of the specifics pertinent to SB 1359 remain with the employer to define. For example, the bill does not define what is a “traumatic event”, it does not specify a minimum number of mental health days required, and it does not specify what level of anonymity peace officers who take leave are entitled to. Districts will need to sort through these issues themselves in concert with their police department administrators. TASB HR has issued initial guidance and sample policies, which can be located at https://www.tasb.org/services/hr-services/mytasb/hr-library/leaves.aspx.
House Bill 2073, effective upon signature of the Governor in June, requires political subdivisions (including school districts) to implement paid quarantine leave for peace officers, emergency medical technicians, and firefighters who are exposed to a communicable disease while on duty. The quarantine leave policy must allocate leave required for quarantine in addition to pre-existing leave, such as sick leave, vacation, and holidays when the peace officer has an on-duty exposure to a communicable disease. Further, the quarantine leave policy must allow for reasonable expenses (medical care, transportation, lodging, etc.) in connection with quarantining to be reimbursed.
There are two important clarifications to be made regarding this bill that have generated some confusion. First, to be eligible for quarantine leave, a first responder must have been exposed to the communicable disease while on duty. Quarantine leave does not apply if a peace officer or firefighter is exposed to a communicable disease in a social setting or at home. Second, to qualify for quarantine leave, the leave must be ordered by the first responder’s supervisor or the political subdivision’s health department. So, by way of example, if a first responder was exposed to a communicable disease that he or she is vaccinated against, and the local health department, due to the individual’s vaccination status, does not require isolating after such an exposure, the first responder would not be eligible for quarantine leave.
For specific questions or additional information regarding these three legislative changes that impact peace officers, or other legislative changes, please consult with your local school law attorney.