Town police put frown on Brown
However, council members saw no need for action, with Councilman Charles Bujan saying the city needs to ensure there are enough police officers to enforce laws.
Brown said the weekend before Memorial Day, he and a friend failed to see a police car on the beach for two straight days. He said on another occasion, he asked a musician who had just finished playing to leave his trailer backed up to a building, simulating a burglary of the building. Although the business closed at 10 p.m., Brown said, "We observed until 2:30 a.m. and we never saw a police car go by."
"I realize we're understaffed, but we're going to have to address that," he told the council.
Brown added that he has called the police department before on non-emergency calls, and has given up waiting after 20 minutes had elapsed.
He said he's heard that morale is bad in the department, but, asked by Councilman Rick Pratt where he'd heard that, he said he wouldn't divulge his sources.
"If morale is so great, why are people always going to the county (Nueces County Precinct 4 Constable)?" he asked. "It's justified by the fact that they get a car to take home, and benefits, and more in their pocket, but I'm not sure I believe that."
Brown dismissed a written response to the criticism prepared by Police Chief Sam Russell and given to council members on Wednesday in a loose-leaf notebook.
"The chief has provided a big book justifying everything, but I feel that some of the stuff in this folder is camouflage," Brown said. "I've been reading it and looking through it, and every time something's brought up, there's always a defense brought up to justify it -- attention is directed to another area to distract attention."
"I think what (the city staff is) seeing isn't what the mayor is seeing," City Manager Michael Kovacs told the council. "I confess, I don't have his information sources and he may be correct, but I don't see a morale issue."
Kovacs said while he doesn't work in law enforcement, he has a degree in criminal justice and as city manager has supervised police departments for several years.
Asked by Kovacs to outline his qualifications, Russell said he has been in law enforcement since 1957. He retired from the California Highway Patrol and was police chief in Uvalde before coming to Port Aransas. He said he has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in police science and has taken courses in advanced management.
"When I came here (in 2005), the department was down by five," he said. "We got it up to one (shortage), then just before Spring Break (in 2008), a couple left saying the pay was a little less but the benefits were better (at the Precinct 4 Constable's office). They mentioned (countypaid) insurance for families, and said it was more money in their pockets."
Russell said one new officer started work earlier in the month, making the department three short of its authorized strength. Another has taken physical and psychological tests and has given notice to his current employer, he said.
"One thing holding law enforcement back: When you have so many military (service members) overseas, it's hard to get applicants," he said. "Background investigations have turned up actions that were potential lawsuit liability. I believe we have a department of well-qualified people, and that's what we want."
Asked by Councilman Charles Bujan what the current staff is, Russell said there were 10 patrol officers, three sergeants and two lieutenants authorized. Only two sergeants are on the staff currently, but he doesn't plan to fill the vacant sergeant position until the patrol positions are filled.
"I've talked that over with Michael (Kovacs), and I'd rather have the boots on the ground," he said.
"How many at one time?" Bujan asked.
"It varies," Russell answered. "On weekends, everybody might be on. One of (the officers) is a detective, but when we get low, he works in uniform on patrol."
"Theoretically, there should be five or six cars on the street," Bujan suggested.
Not true, Russell said, because the department is a 24-hour operation.
"When you start plugging in time off and vacations, (five or six cars) is not likely," he said. "Our current new hire is going through field training, which is mandated (by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education). The days when you came aboard, they handed you a gun and said, 'Go get 'em' are gone."
"I don't want to have a divided council. I think perception is the problem here," Bujan said. "Why would someone sit around for four hours and not see a police officer? I'd like to address why that happens -- do we need more officers?"
'Russell said the situation with law enforcement today is the opposite of the period following the Vietnam conflict, when many potential officers applied for each advertised vacancy.
"(The Texas Department of Public Safety) is short. The Aransas Pass (Police Department) is short. We're all vying for that same group and (Port Aransas) is not going to just fill slots. By the time you finish everything, (the cost of hiring an officer) is between $4,000 and $5,000 per officer, and you don't start recouping that until the officer has been there two years."
Russell said when it costs an officer $400-$500 a month to drive to and from Corpus Christi to work, it wipes out one of his paychecks.
"If he can put more in his pocket, he's going to take it," he said, referring to the county's supplying ve- hicles to deputy constables, who can take them home at night.
"Do we need to pay them more?" Brown asked. "The bottom line is to make it happen, so when people call for a police officer they get one."
Councilman Keith Donley said his experience with the police department had been positive.
"I live pretty far out on the beach, and yeah, there are things that can happen, and I've called the police on several occasions," Donley said. "I've always been surprised at how fast you guys got there. I've never waited more than 10 minutes."
Donley, who was the victim last year of abusive telephone calls, said the resolution of that case made him appreciate police even more.
"I was amazed when the case was finally presented," he said. "(Detective Lt. Darryl Johnson) had a book that was this thick; it was astonishing how much work had gone into that. This isn't a testimonial for the police department, but that was one of the most professional presentations I've seen in my life."
"It's a knee jerk reaction, but one thing I don't want to do is undermine our city manager, and people's perception of things sometimes lead them to (seek immediate action)," said Councilwoman Glenda Balentine. "I'd like not to micromanage the city manager, who's obviously had enough education (in law enforcement), certainly more than any citizen."
Councilman Mike Hall said the police department has improved greatly over the past three years.
"I know you can always bring out the candid camera and find places where you're wrong, but I think there are better ways than a public forum to bring them to Michael's attention," he said. "Every time I've (gone to Kovacs), I've gotten a solution. We may be underpaid and understaffed, but look at where we are compared with where we were three or four years ago. Why would I question Michael's judgment -- he's cleaned up two or three departments since he's been here."
"You're not perfect," Hall said to Russell, regarding the police department, "but you're a hell of a lot better than we had two or three years ago."
The council agreed there was no action needed on the agenda item.