EDINBURG, RGV – Rio Grande Valley law enforcement officials shared common concerns during a recent roundtable discussion.
On Aug. 5, U.S. Senator John Cornyn, U.S. Representative Michael McCaul and local law enforcement officials from around the Rio Grande Valley came together to discuss active shooter response training.
On July 22, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Protecting Our Lives through Initiating COPS Expansion (POLICE) Act. The bill allows law enforcement and other first responders such as the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Fire Department to use Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) federal grants to prepare personnel for active shooter scenarios.
When the round table opened up for discussion, several officials of law enforcement shared their gratitude for the COPS Grant, including Olga Maldonado, chief of Mercedes Police Department.
“We too at one time took the opportunity of applying to the COPS Grant and I can tell you that it was very beneficial for our city,” Maldonado said. “I want to thank you for actually being here today and for actually bringing this act before the [Rio Grande Valley] and it’s very much appreciated when the higher-ups remember the Valley. We’re way down south and a lot of times they don’t realize we’re beyond San Antonio.”
However, other local law enforcement officials shared their concerns. Omar Lucio, Cameron County sheriff, said his officers are working 60 hours for overtime pay.
“When people are working that many hours, sometimes they take a little bit longer to make a decision,” Lucio said. “The human body is set up to a certain extent where you [need] to rest.”
Another one of Lucio’s concerns is his officers’ presence in their families. He said there’s a high rate of divorce among people in law enforcement because there isn’t enough time set aside for family.
While training is essential for any law enforcement agency, taking men off the field for training leaves the city at risk and understaffed. Lucio said people primarily look for five things before they relocate to another county or city: crime rate, education, health, entertainment and culture.
“The commissioners, mayors and county judges need to know that in order to attract people from other places if you want to keep growing, you need to have law enforcement,” Lucio said. “I want my officers to have high visibility with lower crime.”
Urbino “Benny” Martinez, elected sheriff for Brooks County beginning Jan. 2017, shared a concern regarding the need for more prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Martinez said Texas, through their procedures, don’t recognize border patrol agents as peace officers. If a border patrol agent, who is considered to be a federal agent, feels threatened or is harassed on the job, the federal government refers the case back to the state level.
“My concern was funding the prosecution site so they have enough prosecutors and magistrates,” Martinez said. “We can’t just have people walking away from the checkpoint when they commit a crime. It’s not feasible and it needs to be addressed.”
Another issue for Brooks County is migrant deaths. Martinez said they picked up 11 last month. Since 2009, with the help of U.S. Border Patrol, they have rescued over 500 people.
“We’re not looking at the issue at all [and] we’re not addressing it,” Martinez said. “That’s pretty much the bottom line. Why? I have no idea. I guess it’s just too complex as everyone always says. But I think something as complex as that can be dissected to where everyone will be in agreement with it. Get the biometrics involved to where they can come in and not have to perish in our brush.”
Nearly all of the officials of local law enforcement who spoke had concerns due to lack of funding and staff. Any solutions to counteract the concerns require more money.
“Local government is hurting, everyone’s hurting, but you just can’t remove the law enforcement part of it,” Martinez said. “I’d hate to see a county go lawless. We’d be in bad shape. But without resources–without funding–you can’t combat anything for that matter.”
Cornyn said the federal government spends about $2 billion every year for state and local law enforcement. About $180 million go to the COPS Grant.
“What we’ve learned the priorities in terms of the grant funding are not necessarily your priorities,” Cornyn said. “In other words if there are things you would tell us are more urgent and we did things that were perhaps not as urgent and not as immediate then we can prioritize in terms of what that grant funding is available for.”