By Kati Moody
At Monday’s city council meeting, council members assured Albert Garcia, Levelland Police Chief, that they “have his back.”
At the last budget meeting, the police chief requested one additional patrol officer and offered a way that could potentially save the city money in procuring vehicles.
At that meeting, held Tuesday, July 13, Garcia said ia survey of officers at the police department showed the majority would rather share a vehicle if it meant they would have more personnel.
Garcia said he and Erik Rejino, Levelland City Manager, were meeting with a lease company that could offer cost savings in vehicle procurement, as well.
The combination of a reduced patrol fleet and the possible savings of a lease program would potentially create money in the police department to afford one new officer this year, and possibly one new officer for the next three years until each patrol shift has a total of four officers working each shift.
Mary Engledow, city council member for District B, asked if after the events that occurred Thursday, July 15, if any of the officers’ thoughts had changed regarding sharing a vehicle.
“I don’t even think they’ve had time to look at that,” Garcia said.
Engledow said that morning at the joint meeting between council and commissioners, they heard from Sheriff Ray Scifres about what his department was needing, especially in light of the events of July 15, and asked what the police department might be needing.
“We heard from the sheriff, the chief talked about bringing on another officer, is he still looking at that or is there something we really need to be looking at?” Engledow asked.
The chief went to the podium to address the council, and Engledow recounted a phone call she had received recently about the council not supporting the police department.
“I want to make sure the public knows we want to do what you want us to do,” Engledow said.
Jim Myatt, city council member for District A, reiterated that he has heard, in the past, that the city has cut the budget for the police department, which he is against.
“What they probably look at is the fact that our city budget has been cut by at least five to six percent the first year and five to six percent the second year,” Garcia said. “Every time we have cuts that affect the entire city, my budget has to be affected by that because I have the largest budget in the city and the largest amount of staff in the city.”
“Any type of cut in the city budget, my budget takes a hit and I usually take the largest hit because I have the largest budget,” Garcia said.
Garcia said in looking at the needs of his department, he has also tried to be fiscally responsible by proposing ways to save money to fund the needs he is seeing.
“We looked very diligently at how to be fiscally responsible with tax payer money, we looked at programs like before, as maybe we need to move into a fleet program to save money and get more personnel,” Garcia said. “What the sheriff was talking about today was right on point. We are both lacking in personnel.”
Garcia said in order for the department to have more of a proactive role in fighting crime, it requires more officers.
“We do responsive policing, when we’re doing that we’re just going out and responding to calls and doing reports, investigating, those types of things,” Garcia said. “We’re not getting an opportunity to maybe stop the crime before it occurs.”
He said when he came to council previously, requesting one new officer, he also had hopes for a Crisis Intervention Team partnership with the sheriff’s department.
That program initially looked to be a grant program that would provide payroll for a mental health professional to accompany officers to an incident involving a potential mental health subject.
However, he and the sheriff have since learned that is not possible as the funds cannot be used for police payroll.
He also told the council at that time that currently, the department has three officers on shift for every shift.
“This last event on July 15 took the wind out of our sails,” Garcia said. “We have several police officers who have had to take time off just to try to get their composure back to come back to work. What does that do for our department as a whole, we start running less and less and we’re tired. You can see it on the officers’ faces, you can see it when they respond to calls for service.
“There are other officers who have been through this traumatic event who haven’t had the option or opportunity to take time off or try to get their composure back because of their belief that it’s okay, I’ll take my turn later,” Garcia said. “The people who were in the middle of it are still here, still answering calls for service, they didn’t stop and haven’t stopped.
“When you ask me what we need, we need more staff and that’s expensive,” Garcia continued. “I understand that and realize that, but staff will help us to add more people out there who are able to respond to calls for service. Four on patrol instead of three will be beneficial.”
He added that funding a Crisis Intervention Team member would also be beneficial to the department, especially after what occurred in the community on July 15.
“A CIT officer is someone who can respond with police officers to be able to possibly identify someone, like the subject involved on July 15, and put a stop to it,” Garcia said. “Maybe we can stop these violent acts from occurring the future.”
He said a CIT officer is trained specifically in mental health disorders and how to properly respond, and potentially diffuse situations that involve mental health individuals.
Garcia said a few days after the incident on July 15, another call regarding a drug-induced psychosis episode was called in because the parents of the individual didn’t want their son to “be the next guy.”
“The public doesn’t see these certain situations that happen in our community,” Garcia said. “We had a warrant for his arrest and did go and get him and he was still under a drug-induced psychosis.
“Having that type of person who can actually understand and de-escalate those situations is vital to us right now,” Garcia said.
Engledow asked if one new patrol officer and a CIT officer would suffice the department’s needs for this year.
“If I had four more patrol, that would put one more officer per shift and we would have a total of four officers per shift,” Garcia said. “And then one CIT officer, for a total of five officers to make things more efficient and make it to where we can be more responsive.”
He added that he has discussed these issues with the council previously when he presented his yearly crime statistics, showing Levelland had a higher crime index than Dallas, based on the state’s crime index rating.
“We have talked about the ability of the police department to do more community police oriented, we have tried to work diligently and are trying to implement those programs,” Garcia said. “We created the Blue and You 501c3, we’ve done more to get out there with our community.”
Buxkemper asked if the three on patrol include the two school resource officers. Garcia said it does not.
“In 1989, the hiring process that happened at that point, Capt. Tammie McDonald was the one extra that brought us up to 21 officers,” Garcia said. “Since that time, we have 24 officers but two of those are school resource officers through Levelland ISD.”
He said the school district has those officers more than nine months out of the year, because even when school is out, those officers have to complete their training to be school resource officers and one of those officers is on for an extra month with the district for summer school.
“We might get them for two months, maybe, before they have to go back to the school district,” Garcia said. “That’s 22 officers total, since 1989, we’ve gone from 21 officers to 22.”
Engledow asked if the city’s population has grown significantly since 1989. Garcia said that while our population hasn’t grown significantly since 1989, the amount and type of crime has changed dramatically.
“I showed you our calls from 2005 through 2020, which showed we responded to 15,000 calls in 2005 and responded to 25,000 in 2020,” Garcia said. “Violent crime is at the highest I have ever seen, this is not normal for us, this is not who we are, this is not Levelland but this is what we have to deal with.”
Engledow said she believes what the council needs to do is either form a task force, or get one or two council members to work with the police chief to find the money in the budget to provide his department with what it needs.
“Our commitment to you is that you have everything you need for your police department,” Engledow said. “What I would like to do is make a commitment to you to see if we can get a couple council members to work with you and see where we can get the money you need and what we can do.”
“We need to reevaluate this because your life and every other police officer’s life is of the utmost importance to the entire city,” Engledow continued.
Breann Buxkemper, city council member for District C, reiterated Engledow’s sentiments, saying she has seen the issue since the chief brought the statistics before the council earlier this year.
“You got my attention with the crime numbers, July 15 only magnified it,” Buxkemper said.
Myatt asked if for four new patrol officers, that would be about $400,000. Rejino said for everything, including retirement, benefits, salary and two additional patrol vehicles, it would be approximately $400,000.
“We need to find $400,000,” said Michael Stueart, city council member for District D.
Myatt said the council needs to do what it can to try and fund the requests from the police chief.
“In this budget, we need to find $400,000 and leave you alone and try to make this thing work,” Myatt said.
Rejino suggested developing a multi-year plan to see how many new positions the city can afford this year and in the coming years.
“We develop a multi-year plan, see how many we can do this year,” Rejino said. “Sales tax is strong, values are flat, the economy seems to be rebounding.”
Stueart added he would like to see this done a lot sooner than in the next few years.
“I want to do it sooner rather than later,” Stueart said.
All council member expressed their gratitude to the police chief and officers for protecting the community.
“Please reiterate to your staff that help is coming,” Buxkemper said. “We’re committed to you, we’re committed to your department and we’re committed to Levelland.”