Texas Politics

Gov. Abbott launches task force to combat domestic terrorism. Dems say it’s not enough

In the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday efforts to combat domestic terrorism, including the establishment of a task force and increased law enforcement action.

Federal authorities are pursuing a domestic terrorism case against the gunman, who killed 22 people and injured more than two dozen others in an attack targeting Hispanics.

The newly created Domestic Terrorism Task Force is tasked with providing guidance and strategies to ensure the state is best prepared to combat “hateful acts and extremism,” according to a news release.

The group’s objectives will include analyzing potential threats, studying how to increase collaboration between local, state and federal agencies, in addition to providing legislative recommendations.

“Our top priority is to keep Texans safe in their communities,” Abbott said. “Part of that mission is to combat domestic terrorism and root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state.”

But some Democrats were quick to call on Abbott for more action.

“We’ve got a mountain to climb on this issue. I don’t think that these steps are good enough,” said Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who noted that DPS has units that monitor terrorist threats in Texas.

In a statement Wednesday, DPS said it would immediately follow Abbott’s directive for the department to carry out a variety of measures, such as increasing the number of special agents and conducting a statewide intelligence assessment.

The task force will have at least 18 members and is made up heavily of law enforcement officials, from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol members to local sheriffs. The governor, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen are also members.

Members will also include agency officials at both a state and federal level, such as Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and members of the FBI, as well as local law enforcement, such as El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen and Capt. Anthony Carter with the Collin County Sheriff’s Office.

“Texas is stronger when we come together in pursuit of a shared goal, and today’s actions are vital steps in our ongoing fight against extremism and violence,” Abbott said.

In a statement Wednesday, the Texas Democratic Party said the creation of the task force is a step in the right direction, but stressed the need for more diverse voices and organizations that “combat hate every single day” to be included, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“Lets be clear this was white nationalist terrorism and Governor Abbott needs to diversify the people whom he listens to,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “The task force completely lacks any real form of diversity, as it stands, it is comprised of only law enforcement individuals and Republicans. The same Republicans who have been fanning the flames of white supremacy and criminalizing immigration for political profit.”

The task force will hold its first roundtable meeting with Abbott on Aug. 30. It will meet quarterly or at the call of the governor.

“We don’t honor anybody by having more round tables. We don’t honor anybody by paying lip service to creating task forces of ‘The Big Three,’” said Gutierrez. “And if he hasn’t heard enough from experts from the last two massacres that have happened in Texas, then I don’t know what he needs to hear and actually do something.”

Following mass shootings in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and Santa Fe in 2018, roundtable discussions were held that informed a 43-page school safety plan. Measures included in the plan were signed into law this past session.

Gutierrez and Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, are part of a growing number of mostly Democratic lawmakers calling for a special session and both sent letters to Abbott last week requesting one. Gutierrez said he has yet to receive a response.

“The lives of our fellow Texans are at stake and we cannot wait until 2021 to change the laws which can prevent mass shootings now,” Neave said.

Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said measures such as the task force have to be paired with legislation, and called on Abbott to call a special session to address gun laws and domestic terrorism.

“It is no doubt vitally important to ensure that we are tracking these domestic terrorists and (that) law enforcement is coordinating to stop these attacks before they begin,” Romero said, “but, undeniably, part of that process must be ensuring domestic terrorists are not able to legally purchase firearms.”

In a video posted to Facebook, Gutierrez said he would soon be unveiling the Texas Secure Access Firearm Enforcement Act, or Texas SAFE Act, which would include measures such as redirecting $10 million in funding for border security to go toward a gun buy-back program instead.

No measures related to changing the state’s gun laws were noted in Abbott’s announcement.

In addition to the task force, Abbott also directed DPS to “take immediate action to combat any form of domestic terrorism in Texas.”

Actions to do so included conducting a statewide assessment, establishing a Domestic Terrorist Section within the Texas Fusion Center to anticipate and monitor mass casualty threats and increasing the number of DPS special agents and analysts who conduct investigations on gangs affiliated with neo Nazi and white nationalist groups.

A spokeswoman for DPS said 88 officers are assigned to six Texas Anti-Gang Centers across the state, and with Abbott’s directive, that number will increase to more than 100, with personnel focused “on hate groups and networks espousing terrorist attacks.”

Abbott also announced the establishment of teams of DPS special agents to provide immediate support to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, in addition to increasing the number of agents. A DPS spokeswoman said the agency will work with law enforcement partners at the FBI to determine the number of agents needed.

Last week, Abbott announced more than $5 million to assist with counseling and law enforcement efforts in El Paso.

Abbott previously denounced the attack as domestic terrorism, and said the state needs to “ensure that guns are not in the hands of deranged killers,” while making sure “constitutional rights are not going to be violated.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government for the Star-Telegram. Based in Austin, she covers all things policy and politics with a focus on Tarrant County. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.