LHISD Police Department taking shape
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
A mountain of work remains in the development of Liberty Hill ISD’s new police department, a task that occupied all of the time of new Chief Sharif Mezayek prior to mid-August.
The administrative work didn’t stop then, but it took a backseat to the real reason Mezayek wanted and was hired for the position, a chance to work with students.
“It has been a very good experience. I think the kids here are exceptional kids,” he said. “We’ve had a few problems here and there, but they were very minor issues.”
It did take some getting used to, having an officer in the halls with them, but Mezayek said it hasn’t taken long to begin connecting with students.
“At first it was kind of a new thing, they were a little standoffish, but as we got through a couple of weeks it was more relaxed and now the kids are coming to me,” Mezayek said. “A lot of times I’ll have my door open during passing periods and if I’m not out in the hall they’re all dumping in here.”
His experience among the students was typical of his past experiences as students warmed up to having an officer around.
“They find out you’re just there to hang out and talk to them and support them and be a resource,” Mezayek said. “A lot of kids will just come up and start talking to you and you don’t have to approach them all the time.”
Sometimes that conversation is very casual, sometimes more personal about a particular issue, but the importance is making sure everyone knows the officers are approachable and willing to listen.
“It’s usually just casual, unless you’re doing an enforcement action or they’ve had an issue,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of kids come in here and they have issues with something at home or another student and are reaching out to me for guidance. But usually out in the hallways its very casual, just talking about the day.”
Being that resource is the key.
“In school law enforcement you want to be approachable and once you gain the trust of the students this kind of stuff happens and it is very important that we’re out in the hallways and out during lunches,” he said. “My role, if I was just stationed at the high school and had nothing else to do but just take care of this school, would be to be out in the hallway a lot more and in the cafeteria every day through all three lunches. That’s what I expect the officer I will have stationed here to do.”
So far, Mezayek feels he has been welcomed very openly.
“The kids are very welcoming I feel like,” Mezayek said. “I’ve made a lot of contact with the students here. In fact. Some of the more at-risk kids I’ve connected with, which is always good. The parents have also been very supportive as have just all the people in Liberty Hill.”
One challenge logistically for Mezayek so far has been being the only officer for the district through the first two months.
“It has been a challenge, and I’m still putting things together,” he said. “I’m not available all the time, but once I get more help it’s going to be a lot better. Even when I get that help, I still have a lot of things to do because we have a lot of policy left to work through. We have what satisfies TCOLE (Texas Commission on Law Enforcement) for their requirements so far.”
That help may not be too far away as the department has been working on the hiring process, and may have all three additional officer positions filled before the end of the semester if all goes well.
Six candidates were interviewed last week for the three open officer positions, trimmed down from 23 total applicants.
“Out of the six people we were able to start the background check process on two,” Mezayek said. “I am going to go back through the applications. That was the first round of people I wanted to look at and we will go back to look and reinterview because we are looking for one more.”
If those two candidates work out, Mezayek will be down to one more position to fill.
“Hopefully we can find another candidate that will be a fit,” he said. “We haven’t offered any jobs yet as we go through the process of the background checks and once that is completed we can make that decision.”
When the officers are hired, the message from Mezayek will be simple.
“I’m going to expect them to be part of the school,” he said. “It will be their campus. I expect them to build those relationships with the students, staff, administration and the parents. I want them to be firm but fair. You are 45 percent like a mentor or counselor, 45 percent teacher and 10 percent law enforcement. Hopefully that’s what we’re doing concentrating on keeping kids out of trouble rather than on kids being in trouble.”
Vehicles are another issue, and one has been ordered, but is on a 120-day timeline for delivery. With new officers possibly coming on soon, other vehicle orders will be placed soon as well.
“We have ordered one vehicle, the other three we’re going to present to the (school) board this month,” he said. “If those are approved we will order those cars. Hopefully they won’t be as long to get as it was for the first car.”
The nuts and bolts of creating the department have gone fairly smoothly, but Mezayek found there were plenty of hoops to jump through.
He said working with TCOLE and working with the state to get all the paperwork filed properly to officially establish the department was the easier part of it.
“That was fairly simple because it was just paperwork,” Mezayek said. “That all went together pretty seamlessly.”
But trying to get radio channels set up and the record management system up and running through help from Williamson County was much more involved than expected.
“Our challenges were in communications and the IT piece of it, trying to get in with that,” he said. “One of TCOLE’s rules is you don’t have to have 24-hour police service, but you do have to have 24-hour communication services, so when somebody calls the phone at the PD someone has to answer it on the other end. So we contracted with the County, we have an inter-local agreement now with them and that was a process trying to get that stuff up and running.”