By Kati Moody
The Hockley County Sheriff and District Attorney for the 286th District Court addressed Hockley County Commissioners Monday regarding a fourth inmate being held at the Hockley County Jail for capital murder.
Since August 2018, the Levelland Police Department has arrested four people for capital murder, the most recent being last week when Omar Soto-Chavira was arrested related to the deadly standoff shooting on July 15 that resulted in the death of Lubbock County Sheriff’s deputy and SWAT Commander Sgt. Josh Bartlett. Soto-Chavira was charged with capital murder of a peace officer.
Hockley County Sheriff Ray Scifres pled with commissioners to see the need for more personnel and funding for the sheriff’s department as violent crime is and has been increasing for the past several years.
“Four and a half years ago when I first took my oath of office was one of the scariest but coolest things I’ve ever experienced,” Scifres said. “I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you our current state of affairs.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a law man, the needs of this county do not change based on an election year,” Scifres continued. “If this is an unpopular opinion, I’m not going to apologize, I refuse to–this really does come down to one thing and one thing only–public safety.”
Scifres said his original budget request to commissioners was “making some concessions.” He said every year, the sheriff’s office tries to give back 4.5 percent or come in under budget 4.5 percent.
“We’ve proven we’re good stewards of tax payer money granted to us by the county,” Scifres said. “But doing more with less kind of got to me this year.”
He said he requested more personnel in his budget, specifically two new jailers and a new patrol deputy. To make up for his new requests, Scifres said he proposed removing $25,000 from his budget for out of county housing. However, he said he was returning to commissioners to request that money go back into his budget due to the recent capital murder arrest.
Scifres went on to explain that the Hockley County Jail is a 64-bed facility and the average daily population is 72 right now. The highest the daily population has been is 97, but he said it has not been under 64 in more than a decade.
“We outgrew this facility over a decade ago, it has outlived its life expectancy in this county,” Scifres said.
He said the average cost per inmate per day is $74.16. To date, the jail is housing four capital murder cases.
“That should be a scary concept,” Scifres said. “It’s indicative of a problem that has been building for years, not just in Hockley County, it is every where.”
Scifres said the average length of stay for the capital murder cases has been 554 days.
“It has cost us $41,000 [each] to house those individuals,” Scifres said. “That number is only going to go up. One of those inmates is awaiting transport to a state hospital and that wait time is 15 months on average. We’re going to hang on to him for another year while we wait for him to have competency restored so he can actually go to trial.”
“This new defendant, we don’t even know what to expect yet other than to say we are going to be in a very similar situation with him,” Scifres continued.
Referring to Soto-Chavira, Scifres said he will not be housed in Hockley County until his case is adjudicated and is on his way to another facility.
Overall, Scifres said the budget for the jail is $1.7 million, of that $1.2 million is for employees. There are 18 people working, assigned to the jail. And of that, approximately $325,000 is for out of county housing.
“That is just to book an inmate into my jail and be housed somewhere else,” Scifres said. “Going back 11 years, if the trend continues, we will have spent $3 million in the last 11 years to house someone out of county.”
He said from now through the end of the year, the county will spend $220,000 to house inmates out of county.
Scifres said that when looking at the budget, one might think the reason that number is so high is because more people are being arrested, but actually, he said fewer people are being arrested but violent crime is increasing.
“I need beds for felons, aggravated felons, aggravated felony offenses are on the rise,” Scifres said. “I have more people on my roster today than I’ve ever had, including murder, capital murder, aggravated assault, aggravated sexual assault of a child, 35 percent is a crime of violence.”
He said where in the past, narcotics were the major crime for which individuals were arrested, now that has shifted to violent crime or a combination of violent crime and offenses related to narcotics.
“Seventy percent is either a drug offense or a violent crime, and often they have both,” Scifres said. “Those two are connected.”
While the jail is technically a 64-bed facility, Scifres said he is actually at full capacity with 56 inmates due to classification rules.
“I have minimum, medium and maximum offenders and two of those can’t mix,” Scifres said. “I have to keep them separated. Just because we have 64 beds doesn’t mean I house all 64 due to classification purposes.”
Scifres said while people might say “the sheriff just wants people out of jail,” that’s not true. What he really wants is “an efficient system.”
“All elected offices are independent of one another but interdependent on one another,” Scifres said. “What I do affects the police department, what the police department does affects the sheriff’s office and what the district attorney and judges do affect all of us. All of this has to be together, every stake holder in this process and you the taxpayer, you the citizen of this county, are a stakeholder. We have to have a unified mission and a unified vision. If public safety is number one, we have to look at this.”
Scifres went on to set a .22 caliber bullet on the bar in the district courtroom.
“Ten days ago someone reduced our lives to the cost of a bullet,” Scifres said. “What message does that send you? That someone would do violence in our community, what message does that send my people?”
Returning to his budget request, Scifres said his budget request for out of county housing will stay the same as last year at $325,000. He added that originally, he asked for two, or even three, new jailers for the jail to have enough staff to deal with behavioral issues and make his people safe.
“Our facility has a linear design, there is a bad line of sight and we rely on intermittent surveillance,” Scifres said. “If I’m not staring at a video monitor, I might not see what is going on…Every 20 to 30 minutes we’re laying eyes on inmates. Those same jailers are also booking, releasing, classifying, feeding, giving medications, moving to courts and doctors offices, transporting across the state and everything else,” Scifres said. “They’re tired.”
He said right now, there are three total personnel on shift at the jail 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One jailer is designated to the front desk where the other two are left to be responsible for all other duties inside the jail.
He said that means if there is a fight, both jailers on the floor must respond to pull an inmate out of a multi-occupancy cell, while the third calls dispatch for back up, hoping a police officer or deputy are nearby and can respond to provide assistance.
“My staff doesn’t feel safe,” Scifres said. “I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you so, I would not be upholding my oath if I didn’t tell you, everyone, they are not safe.”
He added that deputies oftentimes respond to calls alone and utilize the assistance of Levelland police officers who have assisted deputies on calls as far out in the county as Anton, Ropesville and Whitharral.
“We rely on the city to come with us,” Scifres said. “They have gone with us to every corner of the county. We must rely upon them because our staff is not sufficient. We’ve done every possible thing we can to make the most of every single person we have. We are missing our most valuable resource, our human resource.
“If one of my people get hurt because we don’t have what we need, it would absolutely devastate me,” Scifres said. “I’m letting people down and I’m tired.”
Scifres continued into the maintenance issues at the Law Enforcement Center that houses the Hockley County Jail, Hockley County Sheriff’s Office and Levelland Police Department.
“We have had more than 160 calls for maintenance this year and we’re not even through seven months of the year yet,” Scifres said. “Most of those are plumbing problems. When the plumbing fails, it will be a catastrophic failure. It will mean moving every single inmate out of that jail. You think we’re paying a lot now for out of county housing, wait until the plumbing goes.”
He said at the end of the day, everything goes back to public safety and ensuring a safe community for Levelland and Hockley County citizens.
“At the end of the day…this is about public safety and being able to do the jobs we are tasked with every single day,” Scifres said. “What we are looking for is support. Back the Blue is an amazing thing, but it’s more than a sticker, it’s more than a yard sign, this is about protecting our citizens.
“My message is truly clear, we have to support our public safety personnel. If that means adding additional personnel resources, we do it,” Scifres said. “We need to move out of the antiquated jail, we need to do it. It’s time. I’m done beating around the bush about that, it’s time.
“I leave the question for you today, 10 days ago, someone sent a very clear message to us of what they thought of our personnel, what message are you going to send to your personnel today?” Scifres concluded.
Sharla Baldridge, county judge, added that the reason she had the sheriff on the agenda for the regular commissioners meeting versus the budget workshop was so the citizens in attendance would be able to understand what the county is facing.
“I knew there would be a lot of people here and it’s important for them to understand.” Baldridge said. “People need to know when they’re taxes go up, if we need to facilitate this, we owe them that right to be transparent.”
Angela Overman, district attorney, was next. She spoke to the three capital murder indictments pending in district court, as well as the newest charge that has come before the office, capital murder of a peace officer.
Overman echoed the words of Scifres, saying that Back the Blue means funding law enforcement and public safety.
“That means we fund them period, they have to have help,” Overman said. “These guys are important. This is significant to me, our law enforcement personnel walk into very serious, very violent situations–situations we cannot fathom, and they do it to protect you, your children, and your family.
“They’re putting their family, their lives, second and they do it because they respond to a higher calling,” Overman said. “We’ve got to open our eyes here.”
Overman spoke to the capital murder cases, saying that everyone has differing opinions on what is more cost-effective and what is just, pursuing the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.
“When it comes to what happened on July 15, money is not my concern,” Overman said. “[Sgt. Josh Bartlett’s] death deserves a severe punishment. People aren’t going to come into this county, or Cochran County, and kill one of our officers, one of our first responders, someone who is sacrificing for our community. It’s not going to happen without being held accountable.”
She said when looking at capital murder cases, the cost to prosecute a case depends on a variety of factors, but can range from $800,000 to $3.8 million.
She added that for a death penalty case, the appeals process is automatic and appeals continue until injection.
“I asked our commissioners with the utmost respect for another assistant district attorney and another investigator, and, or, another full-time secretary, whatever I can get,” Overman said. “I have worked tirelessly, and am happy to do it. I gladly accept that responsibility, it is my calling. I just need a little more help so I can do more, I can do even better and justice can be swifter.
“I’m ready to get these guys, I’m frustrated they’re sitting in jail for 500 something days,” Overman said. “Yeah, we had Covid, but I don’t believe in excuses. I want them prosecuted.”
Overman said she has asked the attorney general for help in prosecuting the multiple capital murder cases in Hockley County, and added that the county does have insurance when it comes to prosecuting capital murder cases. She has also reached out to other prosecutors who have said they will help, as well.
“This is going to require a team,” Overman said. “The defense has a team, they have resources, we need a team.”
She said the discovery in a capital murder case, specifically the most recent one, will be extensive.
“We have to produce everything and show everything in discovery,” Overman said. “That is evidence that is accumulated in a case.”
She said there were between 30 and 40 law enforcement personnel in the peripheral of the scene on July 15, all of which have their own body cameras with footage that will have to be processed as evidence in the case, along with the DPS helicopters that responded.
“The greater challenge though is not the death penalty cases, the greater challenge to the safety of Hockley and Cochran County residents is our ability to prosecute crime day in and day out,” Overman said.
She said crime has “increased dramatically while our resources at the district attorney’s office have not.”
“The budget was cut in 2019 and in 2018,” Overman said. “What used to be, isn’t any longer. But, the demands on the office are ever increasing.
“I will work, I’ll do the 24-hour day,” Overman said.
The commissioners did not take action on the budget requests made by the sheriff and district attorney at Monday’s meeting.