PHARR, RGV – Once the new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence opens in Pharr, South Texas College will be able to provide specialized law enforcement training that, to a large extent, is currently unavailable in the Rio Grande Valley.

This is the view of Pharr Chief of Police Rubén Villescas, who has testified in support of legislation to set up the Center.

Pharr Chief of Police Rubén Villescas
Pharr Chief of Police Rubén Villescas

“The Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence will serve in providing specialized training courses to law enforcement officers from the region that might otherwise not be accessible,” Villescas said, in a letter of support for House Bill 1887, authored by state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.

Villescas listed the sort of specialized training courses he believes the new center will provide: crime scene specialization, forensics, death investigations, accident investigation/reconstruction, and emergency vehicles operations. He said such courses will “equip regional law enforcement officers with higher level of capabilities and competency to investigate critical incidents occurring in our communities.” He added that specialized training courses will be accessible for all the law enforcement agencies – local, county, state and federal.

“The need for establishing this center is clear. The region does not have one, and we need one created by statue to support the educational and training needs for our law enforcement personnel.”

Another key point to know about the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence, Rep. Muñoz said, is that its courses will go towards college credit hours. Muñoz said the McAllen Peace Academy, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Academy, the Pharr Peace Academy and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council Peace Academy offer basic peace officer licensing courses approved by the state.

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.
State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr.

“The training provided by the certification at these police academies does not provide college credit. Law enforcement professionals are eager to earn this college credit and college degrees in their respective fields,” Muñoz said. He said the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence will also include continuing education training as required to maintain its certification. He said this currently only available on a very limited basis.

“The certificate and associate of applied science degrees will be developed in police administration, forensics, emergency management, leadership, aircraft rescue, homeland security, special weapons, tactics, and corrections, to name a few,” Muñoz said.

“These new certificate and associate of applied science degrees will be developed and implemented as facilities become available. South Texas College will be partnering with the Pharr Police Academy and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council as training providers to complete the necessary requirements of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.”

Police Chief Villescas agreed with Muñoz on the importance of offering courses with college credit hours. “There is a new generation of police officers coming into law enforcement all seeking to obtain their college credit hours and get their degree to move on to the state and federal jobs. As much as we would want to retain our officers and ask them to stay within our community we do know that their visions and their goals in life might be much bigger, so we do provide for that and we recognize that. We are willing to help them along the way to get their higher education.”

Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, testified on HB 1887. She told legislators that of the 50 community colleges in Texas, only 25 offer peace office certification programs and only 15 provide college level credit. “That is what is so important about this regional center. We want do want our law enforcement and public safety professionals to have the opportunity to earn college credit. They want to earn college credit. We believe they deserve to earn college credit,” Reed said.

Two years ago, voters approved a $159 million bond election for South Texas College. Some of that money will go towards the construction of the Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence. The City of Pharr has agreed to donate about 50 acres so that STC can begin development.

Within that bond funding was provided to establish this regional center. Funds would be available for construction. The City of Pharr has agreed to provide 50, 60, acres so we can begin development. We will also be working with the City of Pharr as well as their police department.

“To the best of our knowledge we are proposing the first regional center of this nature. Community colleges work closely with their local police department but this really will be a new model for collaboration. We are asking that you support HB 1887,” Reed told the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety.

Mario Reyna, dean of business and technology at STC.
Mario Reyna, dean of business and technology at STC.

Reed added that she is sometimes asked why Muñoz’s legislation is needed. “The community college has complete authority to establish this regional facility but we believe it is important that it be established in state statute. This will serve as the foundation for future expansion and development. We do believe it will also provide access to local, state, and federal funding opportunities, particularly from the Department of Homeland Security,” Reed said.

Mario Reyna, dean of business and technology at STC, said he has visited the police academy in Austin and it has 88 acres of land. He said the sort of courses Austin can offer will now be available in the Valley because the new Center will have sufficient space. “This (Center) will serve as the focal point where all the agencies can come and participate in our programs. We will have a driving range, a shooting range, simulation; all the things that are necessary to train our police force. By having a well-educated and college educated police force I think will server our community extremely well,” Reyna said.

Victor Valdéz, program chair for the South Texas College Law Enforcement Academy, testified that it is currently “difficult to get specialized training” for law enforcement agencies in the Valley. He said officers and trainees often have to go on courses in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and College Station. “We want to do that in our area, to pool our resources together and provide that training,” Valdéz said.

House Bill 1887 has been passed by the Texas House and a Senate panel. It next goes to the Texas Senate for approval.

Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this story, South Texas College, state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., the City of Pharr, Pharr Police Department and PSJA Independent School District are pictured announcing a partnership to establish a Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence. The photo, taken at Pharr City Hall on May 7, 2013, features, from left to right, then-South Texas College Vice President for Academic Affairs Juan Mejia, STC Dean of Business and Technology Division Mario Reyna, Pharr City Manager Fred Sandoval, State Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr., then-Pharr Mayor Leo ‘Polo’ Palacios, PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel King, STC President Shirley A. Reed, STC Board of Trustee Members Paul R. Rodriguez and Alejo Salinas Jr., and Pharr Police Chief Ruben Villescas.