Council discusses police department staffing levels

By SHELLY WILKISON

In smaller cities, the costs of policing often seem extraordinarily high and decision-makers regularly find themselves struggling to weigh the costs vs benefits.

Liberty Hill is no different, and the

debate is raised anew every year as elected officials make decisions on  staffing levels at budget time. This spring, the City Council is being asked to consider whether Liberty Hill needs police protection around the clock.

During Monday’s regular Council meeting, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa told the Council that one police officer is considering a job with another agency and other officers, who have been the target of “many complaints” may be in need of a “career change.” He asked the Council to advise him on whether the positions should continue to be funded, or whether this should be an opportunity to downsize police operations and save money.

Since Sept. 19, 2011, the police department has maintained a full-time police force providing preventive patrols around the clock with five full-time officers and one part-time officer.

Police Chief Randy Williams, who is one of the full-time employees, admits that officers patrolling during the overnight hours are not writing traffic citations that do generate some revenue for the City. Instead, their  preventive patrolling is helping to keep the community safe.

Williams did not speak during the Council meeting, but spoke to The Independent the following day.

“I’m big on preventive patrol. But is it cost effective? No,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of tickets to write in the middle of the night, and there are not a lot of 911 calls. But when there are, they are the most serious ones. Is the question, ‘do you pay for officers not to do anything?’ The answer is yes. What we do is preventive — that’s the goal, to have a safe community.

“You want tickets to go down, you want people to drive right, you want voluntary compliance — this work isn’t about making money,” Williams said.

“It’s not that we need to generate the revenue,” De La Rosa said, “but if you have less police and less tickets, or if you have the current police and less tickets being written, then it’s going to certainly disrupt the operations of the (Municipal) court because then we’re overstaffed in another department. That’s the domino effect. I don’t want you to think it’s a money issue because it’s not.”

De La Rosa said an alternative to around-the-clock policing by city officers is to staff only during daytime and evening hours and allow county deputies to serve the area at night. He said other small towns in Williamson County, such as Jarrell, Florence, Barlett and Granger, are following that type of schedule, and also use reserve officers.

Before De La Rosa implemented a 24-hour department in September 2011, Liberty Hill police worked day and evening shifts and the community depended on county law enforcement during late night hours.

Williams said he has one non-paid reserve officer, who typically works one eight-hour shift per week.

Council members asked De La Rosa to provide additional information at future meetings, including a cost analysis for various staffing levels. Additionally, Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy referenced a staffing ratio commonly used in major cities — two officers per 1,000 population.

Williams told The Independent that the ratio “isn’t a true ratio” and wasn’t meant to apply to cities of fewer than 15,000 population. He said it is also meant to be interpreted as two officers on duty per 1,000 population.

“First, you have to look at the amount of time you want the city to be covered and figure out what it takes to do that,” he said.

“In a small town, the issue is preventive patrols, having a police presence, quick response times and the quality of the response,” Williams said.

He said the Sheriff’s Office does not practice “small-town preventive policing.”

On any given shift, it isn’t uncommon for a deputy to have four calls waiting all of the time, said Williams.

“They are responding countywide and are always in a hurry to get out of one call and on to the other,” he said.

Williams said deputies responding to Liberty Hill calls typically come from the Jarrell area, and even running with lights and siren, the response time can be 15 minutes.

“In some situations, 15 minutes can be a lifetime,” he said.

Before the City of Liberty Hill created the police department six years ago, the City contracted with the Sheriff’s Office to pay deputies to work off-duty in Liberty Hill. In addition to responding to 911 calls for service, the deputies wrote traffic citations.

De La Rosa told The Independent prior to the meeting that although he has fielded complaints on officers, his decision to raise the discussion with the Council now was not an attempt to gain support to terminate employees. Instead, he said it was a policy discussion that impacted upcoming budget planning.

However, he continually referenced complaints on officers throughout his presentation to Council.

“I see many complaints. Some are valid some are mot. We certainly counsel our employees when they are valid complaints. Sometimes I just see poor judgment being utilized. I don’t want to discuss anybody particularly, but there are names that come up fairly often, that gives me concern,” said De La Rosa. “I’m very sensitive to the employees that we have, and I’m also sensitive to what revenue we generate and whether we can substantiate it.”

Chief Williams told The Independent this week that the department averages less than one written complaint per month, but it is not uncommon to hear verbal complaints.

“That’s the nature of this business,” he said, adding that all complaints against officers are investigated.

“I can tell you there’s a trend to who I think may be lazy and who’s a worker,” De La Rosa told the Council.

When asked about the relationship between city police officers and county deputies, De La Rosa said the relationship is “poor,” as is the relationship between police and area highway patrol officers .

“Sometimes we have officers with attitudes that are less than favorable,” De La Rosa said. “Sometimes if you remove those elements then you start to improve and if we start to show ourselves to other agencies that we are being more attentive to our needs, responding and having a better attitude in working with other agencies then they will certainly participate, help us more often.”

Council member Charles Canady said any study of possible restructuring of the police department should also include a comparison of salaries with other agencies.

“We’re still not paying the basic salary range that Williamson County pays,” he said. “So, at some point, we need to look at what Williamson County pays so we can keep officers here who want to stay here.”