On his way to winning a third term as the state's attorney general, Republican Greg Abbott hit the airwaves with a TV ad that made him sound like a round-'em-up sheriff.
"He’s arrested more criminals than any Texas attorney general, including thousands of child predators and sex offenders," the narrator says. This claim wrested the attention of reader Joyce Lynch, who suggested that we look into whether Abbott has been 'cuffing suspects while working as the state's top lawyer.
First, we asked Jason Johnson, Abbott's campaign consultant for back-up evidence. He pointed to the office's criminal investigations division, "staffed by commissioned peace officers and crime analysts who undertake a wide range of investigations and activities to support detection, prevention, and prosecution of crime," according to the attorney general's website.
In a document e-mailed to us, Johnson focused on two division units that Abbott created in 2003:
* The Cyber Crimes Unit, which "arrests child predators who commit sex crimes against children using technology and the Internet," according to the attorney general's website. That includes people who contact youths online and try to set up a time, date and location to have sex with them. In some cases, undercover officers identify suspects by posing as children in chat rooms and on websites. The unit also makes child pornography arrests.
* The Fugitive Unit, which seeks out and arrests people with histories of sex crimes who have violated their parole or sex offender registration requirements, the site says. According to an overview provided by Abbott's office, the unit has also arrested other kinds of fugitives, including "Louisiana criminals with outstanding warrants who fled to Texas during Hurricane Katrina," as well as gang members and other offenders rounded up under Falcon II, an initiative led by the U.S. Marshals Service that targeted sexual predators and violent offenders.
The units work in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, including local police and the FBI, according to the attorney general's website and news releases. However, Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the office, told us that the peace officers employed by the attorney general's office consistently make arrests on their own. Strickland also said that although Abbott is not a certified peace officer and cannot make arrests, he has been present during some apprehensions by his officers.
According to information from Strickland, the cyber-crimes and fugitive units arrested 2,052 child predators and sex offenders from the teams' creation in 2003 through mid-October, when Abbott's TV ad began running. Of those arrests:
* 1,806 were by the fugitive unit; the majority were arrests of sex offenders who had violated their parole or failed to register.
* 246 were by the cyber-crimes unit and were related to child pornography or online solicitation of a child. Of those, 221 have led to convictions.
Next, we wondered how Abbott's arrest record stacks up against those of his predecessors.
Although Johnson didn't have data showing the number of arrests by the attorney general's office over the years, he said he was confident that the ad — claiming that Abbott has arrested more criminals than any Texas attorney general — was correct because of the surge in criminal division officers on Abbott's watch.
Background: The 1991 Legislature gave the attorney general's office permission to employ up to five peace officers. Bill analyses from that time say that the office needed the extra staff to assist local prosecutors in investigations. In 1999, lawmakers removed the hiring limit, partly because of an expansion of the Medicaid fraud program within the attorney general's office.
According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, which tracks the number of peace officers in the state, the number of officers appointed by the attorney general's office rose each year between 1999 and 2010, from five to more than 150. (The growing number of peace officers of all kinds has been a trend statewide. According to a 2009 Statesman story, there are three dozen types of agencies, institutions, boards, commissions and political subdivisions that can appoint their own law enforcement agents.)
According to information from Johnson, in fiscal 2002, just before Abbott became attorney general, 36 peace officers were working for the attorney general's office and made 99 arrests. That compares to fiscal 2010, when the agency employed 141 officers (as of Sept. 9) and arrested 795 people.
Summing up: Abbott's campaign ad stated that he had made "thousands" of arrests. Abbott hasn't personally arrested anyone, but he has put into place criminal investigation units that had taken into custody more than 2,000 "child predators and sex offenders" through mid-October. Legislative actions during the past 20 years lend credence to the claim that the arrests outnumber those of his predecessors, though his campaign didn't have data to prove it. By the same token, most earlier attorneys general didn't have the same manpower or authority to make arrests.
We rate Abbott's statement Mostly True.