Amid fallout from Uvalde shooting, Texas DPS wants $1.2B for active-shooter training facility

ByKaren Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, November 23, 2022
Texas DPS wants $1.2B for academy and active-shooter training facility
DPS is asking lawmakers to approve a $467 million active-shooter facility as a "down payment" for the training academy. "You play like you practice," Director Steve McCraw said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety wants $1.2 billion to turn its training center north of Austin into a full-time statewide law enforcement academy - starting with a state-of-the-art active-shooter facility that would need a nearly half-billion-dollar investment from Texas taxpayers next year.

"You play like you practice," DPS Director Steve McCraw told budget officials last month. "You need to practice in a real environment."

If approved, the requested $466.6 million "down payment," as McCraw called it, in the state's 2024-25 budget - which won't be finalized until the middle of next year - would be the start of 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, he said.

The $1.2 billion project figure does not appear in the agency's legislative appropriations request, which comes at a time when agencies are making their bids for a share of a historic state cash surplus in the next biennium - and against the backdrop of an emotional debate over what the state needs to do to prevent more mass killings.

A "state-of-the-art" active-shooter facility would be built with the first round of funding next year and could be used "right off the bat," independent of the rest of the proposed upgrades, to immediately enhance active-shooter response by Texas law enforcement, McCraw said in a brief presentation before the Texas Legislative Budget Board on Oct. 4.

If fully funded over the next three budget cycles, the training academy would cost $1.2 billion and eventually include dormitories, a cafeteria and other elements, McCraw said.

"It's a cost we recognize as a cost that can't be borne in any one session. It takes time to build it," McCraw said of the proposed academy.

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He did not specify whether the center would charge fees for other law enforcement agencies to use the facility, if it would draw down any federal funding or what it would cost to run the center beyond the six-year construction budget.

DPS officials did not respond to repeated requests for a copy of the proposed plans for the active-shooter facility or the larger multiyear proposal for the academy, information about whether additional land purchases would be needed or the breakdown of the cost estimate for the upgrades.

The proposal comes as the agency faces heavy criticism over its response to the deadly elementary school shooting in Uvalde in May, when 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.

The proposed active-shooter facility was part of a presentation made by McCraw to captains at the Texas Highway Patrol, an arm of the DPS, according to meeting minutes obtained by The Texas 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 his comments last month, McCraw did not specify whether the ALERRT program would be used, saying only that the active-shooter facility would be "state of the art" and that "currently one does not exist in Texas."

The agency's legislative appropriations request does not give more details.

The Williamson County 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.

"What we don't have out there is ... the live-scenario facility to be able to do the type of training that ... not just troopers but local police officers and deputy sheriffs need to operate in today's environment," McCraw said during that October meeting with budget officials. "Not just in terms of the track and the firing ranges but with building structures as well."

The Texas State University ALERRT center runs some training sessions at the Williamson County complex already, with one scheduled there next week.

Pete Blair, executive director of the ALERRT center at Texas State, said his San Marcos facility is used for several types of first-responder training as well as active-shooter training on site.

Blair hasn't seen the DPS plans for the proposed site but said a facility that would be considered state of the art might include reconfigurable walls, cameras and similar technological upgrades.

That's the sort of technology that would be found at facilities like the federal Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility in Quantico, Virginia, which has 17 structures including a school scenario. Another of the nation's top-tier facilities is at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers Glynco campus, a 1,600-acre facility near Brunswick, Georgia.

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Most of the quarter-million first responders the Texas ALERRT center has worked with in the past two decades were trained somewhere besides the Texas State center in San Marcos, Blair said.

"I will say there is a need for training facilities across the state," Blair said. "We've always had more demand than we have money to provide training. So every cycle, it's been a situation of us having to put departments on the waitlist and say, 'We're coming to you, but it's going to be a while.'"

The campus center has some buildings that can be used for shooter scenarios, but most of the work is done at other law enforcement agency facilities, in borrowed buildings, and occasionally in school buildings during the weekend or summer months when school is out, Blair said.

It takes about $2 million per year to run the training out of the center, Blair said. In its 2024-25 appropriations request, Texas State University included a $6.6 million request for additional funding for the next two years to expand the program to more law enforcement officers statewide, as directed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year.

After the May school shooting in Uvalde, Abbott and other GOP state leaders announced support for increased access to the ALERRT program, directing the Texas State center to expand its capacity to reach more officers in Texas and funding agencies to help pay for their officers to go to training.

In June, Abbott and state budget leaders transferred from surplus education funds $50 million for bullet-resistant shields, $7 million for rapid-response training by the ALERRT center and $3 million for local agencies to offset travel for ALERRT training.

While Democratic lawmakers argued for more gun control, Abbott and the other leaders focused on school security, mental health programs and more resources for police. There was no mention at the time of plans by the DPS to build a new facility.

"We sadly recognize we cannot do anything to bring back the precious lives that were taken; however, we must do everything in our power to prevent the same tragic ending from happening again," Abbott said in a June 6 letter to Blair. "An important part of these prevention efforts must focus on the proper training of law enforcement and school administrators on how to respond when they face the threat of an active shooter on their campus."

Blair said he expects to see legislation next session that would require active-shooter training for every Texas officer and retraining every three years. Building a new facility in San Marcos is not in the cards right now, he said, "but it doesn't mean in the future we won't look at that."

Blair added that he hasn't been contacted by DPS about its plans and doesn't know how its proposed facility might stack up to other sites, but that it would likely be "bigger and better than what is currently available."

"There is an advantage, for sure, to having a dedicated training facility and that you have access to it all the time," Blair said. "You can conduct training there all the time and maintain a much faster operational tempo."

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