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Water districts need to address public safety

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Those of us who live in southern Denton County are blessed with a low crime rate, low tax rate, excellent school districts, and great economic opportunities. Ten years ago I moved our family to Denton County for all of these reasons and plan to serve in law enforcement and reside here for the rest of my professional life.

Post retirement I was selected to serve as the Double Oak Police Department Chief.  It was a great opportunity to have the Andy Griffith small town experience and bring skills and guidance gained working for Dallas PD and Coppell to the officer corps.  I quickly realized that big department, suburban department, or small department you find police work is police work, what changes are the resources available and scale, not the mission.  Budgeting for one police car or fourteen police cars; leading seven officers or sixty-two the effort is, and should be, the same.

I sincerely want conversations about law enforcement services and staffing to rise above a menial focus on traffic enforcement.  Arguing about traffic humps, stop signs and speeding ignores the importance having police officers available to react to critical incidents and securing our neighborhoods.  I can’t stress strongly enough that I’m not a politician.  I’m not running for office, scrambling for votes or trying to obtain campaign money.  I have no interest at heart other than caring for and protecting the people of Double Oak and their police department.  I hope and pray to be a successful steward for another five years and then quietly retire.

Upon arriving in Double Oak in 2009 it was immediately apparent that there was a significant disparity in how law enforcement resources are distributed within Denton County.  Copper Canyon, Double Oak, Bartonville, and Argyle are all served by contract Deputies or Police Departments.  Lantana, as a governmental entity run by two water districts, relies ostensibly upon the Sheriff’s department for patrol and investigative resources.  Like many areas in Denton County the listed communities have experienced, and are still experiencing, significant population growth.  Between April 1, 2010 and July 1, 2013 Denton County experienced a 6.7% increase in population (source http://quickfacts.census.gov).  Denton County law enforcement resources have not been keeping  pace with the growth experienced in Denton County over the past ten years.

Tonight, when you go to bed, there will be one police officer on duty in Double Oak (pop. 3200), one police officer on duty in Argyle (pop. 3,403), and maybe a police officer on duty in Bartonville (pop. 1,503) dependent upon scheduling and staffing.  Throw in the populations of Copper Canyon (pop. 1,300) and Lantana (pop. 9,000 +/-) and you have approximately 18,406 citizens dependent upon two to three police officers and a sheriff’s deputy, when available. 

At night, the Denton County Sheriff’s Department will have on duty four to five deputies and one supervisor to serve a population of approximately 707,304 residents (source http://quickfacts.census.gov) and approximately 958 square miles.  When a resident of the unincorporated area of Denton County calls for police service I’m pretty sure they believe a sheriff’s deputy is going to be answering that call.  I’m also confident that if you’re being assaulted, or a loved one is depressed, or your house or car has been or is being broken into, you don’t care where the cops come from just that they arrive. 

Our regional staffing ratio to population served is very low.  We are conducting business in a fashion that will one day end in disaster either for a citizen or a law enforcement officer.  DOPD officers have answered family disturbance, suicidal subjects, burglaries in progress, stranded motorists, burglar alarms, shots fired, barricaded persons, intoxicated persons, and felony DWI calls, all in the unincorporated area of Denton County over the past five years.  On nights (and oftentimes on day shift) we don’t maintain enough staffing to surround a single residence if a person is barricaded inside, threatening to harm themselves or another person.  Basic police concepts such as having a “cover officer” (one who maintains security during a disturbance and doesn’t get distracted by trying to chat with anyone) and a “contact officer” are violated just about every week during disturbance investigations and arrests as often only one officer is available for a significant period of time.

A really good taste of how razor thin resources are came early in my tenure when I and another DOPD officer answered a call (outside our Town limits and at the request of the Sheriff’s Department) involving an intoxicated and distraught man who claimed to be suicidal and, according to a family member witness, was curled up in a fetal position with a handgun in the living room of his home.  Having been a SWAT commander I immediately shut down the roadway in front of the subject’s house, kept the witness behind cover, established the best perimeter possible with an officer to the north of the residence and myself to the south and then we waited fifteen minutes for the Sheriff’s Department to marshal forces and come up with a plan.  Upon arrival, a Sheriff’s Sergeant listened to a briefing on the totality of the circumstances, grabbed his three patrol officers, approached the residence, made entry, rushed the subject, disarmed him and then transported.  I genuinely commend their bravery and decisiveness of action however I did sincerely fear for the lives of every deputy that entered the door.  In my past life a perimeter would have been established and then a negotiator would have been brought in to talk the suicidal person out of the house.  If said subject didn’t want to exit the residence, but still presented a danger to themselves or others, we would have encouraged their exiting through the utilization of gas rounds, or if we had to make entry we would have had heavy tactical armor and ballistic shields for the officers ordered in to the residence.  As the years slide by I’ve come to realize that we probably had every available Denton County Sheriff’s deputy on duty respond that day.  As we increase our population and service demands we increase the potential for critical incidents in which understaffing can result in poor decision making, injury or death.

Sheriff’s Departments are indeed responsible for law enforcement in unincorporated areas of counties.  However, I don’t think the traditional model of municipal agencies working in concert with deputies to answer calls and services ever accounted for the impact of the high population density communities currently being created by water districts.  I am certainly familiar with the argument that “I live in (fill in name water district), pay taxes, and the Sheriff’s department should provide a high level of patrol for me…”  An argument that ignores the fact that every homeowner in Denton County pays taxes and is entitled to a proportionate amount of services.  I get a bit frustrated when watching deputy resources being diverted to direct traffic in front of a school in an unincorporated area of Denton County knowing  many at large warrants are going unserved and high crime areas are going unpatrolled.  Or the certainty that if a deputy is directing traffic in Lantana some poor officer in Justin has to handle a disturbance in the unincorporated area surrounding their community because the deputies are not available! 

Certainly the reader could ask at this time why the Double Oak Police Department cares how and why Lantana chooses to not provide law enforcement for its citizens.  Reality is that a significant portion of the calls being answered by Double Oak, Argyle and Bartonville are generated by residents of Lantana and other unincorporated areas of Denton County.  Using the Double Oak PD Third Quarter
Staff Report as a snapshot of police activity, we answered 231 calls for service of which 50 of those calls– or roughly 1 in 5– were “assist agencies” where we answered calls out of district.  What is distressing is that every time we respond to a call in Lantana we are, as a community, subsidizing services for another governmental agency.

Another snapshot from 2013 probably helps illustrate the situation.  Bartonville officer Browning and Double Oak officer Wyman were dispatched to an assist officer call in Lantana at the request of the Sheriff’s Department.  Upon arrival they found a lone deputy attempting to corral a mid-twenties male who had overdosed on hallucinogenic drugs.  His parents were concerned for the young man’s safety and recognized that he needed help (hence the call for Police and Emergency Medical Services).  As officers attempted to detain the young man he pushed the deputy down and started to run from officers Wyman and Browning.  After a brief foot chase the fleeing subject stopped to catch his breath, lay down on the ground and was placed in handcuffs.  Officer Wyman later told me that he decided not to utilize a TASER to affect an arrest as he was concerned about “excited delirium” and the potential for serious injury or death to the intoxicated subject.  Officer Browning and Officer Wyman are both over 6-ft 2-in tall and weigh over 250 lbs each, the involved subject was actually able to push both officers off the ground while they attempted to restrain him.  The subject was eventually strapped to a backboard and taken to Denton County for appropriate medical treatment and judicial review. 

As peace officers we are always glad to assist with the successful resolution of a critical incident and insure that the community and involved subjects are taken care of in a safe manner.  From a risk management perspective the towns of Double Oak and Bartonville were certainly placed in a dangerous situation in terms of risk to officer and financial liability.  Lantana didn’t pay for the hiring search, background investigation, academy training, equipment, uniforms, body armor, field training, annual salary, health insurance, workers compensation,  or expose themselves to the liability of a Peace Officer they employ injuring another person while attempting to accomplish their duties.

There is no magic bubble that protects the residents of Double Oak or the surrounding communities.  Lawbreakers have and will again break into our homes, hurt our loved ones and arrive in greater numbers as the population continually climbs upwards.  Police officers aren’t cheap (and in my experience the, “You get what you pay for”  rule often holds true), take forever to train, are difficult to retain and are going to do things that on occasion irritate the community. 

The current model of doing business is not going to be sustainable for much longer.  If you live in a water district please understand that you are served by one of the best Sheriff’s Departments in Texas.  It is not their fault, or the fault of the Denton County Commissioners Court, that non-traditional development models are overwhelming their resources.  I suspect that residents can complain as much as they want but there is no extra money for additional deputies to provide patrol and support services to these new densely populated neighborhoods without raising taxes on all residents of Denton County.  A few suggested options:

Option 1 – Provide the Sheriff’s Department with the funding to staff law enforcement positions to serve a community of 9000 (I suspect that could be accomplished with 18 dedicated sworn personnel to include patrol officers, CID support and traffic enforcement for adequate 24/7/365 support – a ratio of 2 officers per 1000 residents is consistent with local area staffing.  Cheap?  Nope.  Needed?  Yes.  Using the DOPD budget as a touch stone that would probably cost approximately $1.6 million dollars (this includes cars, uniforms, overtime, insurance and all the other support that goes into a successful organization).  Certainly that cost might be lower as the Sheriff already has a jail, dispatch, maintenance unit etc.

Option 2 – Lantana could establish their own police department.  The Code of Criminal Procedure is pretty clear that water districts can have peace officers, although I’ve been told by people within the water district that they can’t legally do so.  I’ll agree to disagree for the moment.

Option 3 – Work with your Fire Chief and create a combined Fire and Police District to provide services.  Fire Departments often carry commissioned police officers as Arson Investigators and recently a community in Rockwall County incorporated and formed a Police/Fire Public Safety Department with cross-trained public safety personnel to provide both services to their community as an economically efficient way to handle business.

Option 4 – Do nothing and wait for an inevitable tragedy involving a citizen calling for help that goes unanswered because the two lone deep night officers are already on a disturbance call and the nearest deputy is in northeast Denton County answering a call at Paloma Creek.

If you’re a resident of Lantana I urge you to talk to your board representatives.  Like any good public servant they are sworn to uphold the law and serve your best interests – but they need input!  The board members and community members I’ve spoken with genuinely care about Lantana.  Your community is surrounded by professional law enforcement agencies with leadership that has decades and decades of experience.  Denton Police Chief Howell served as the Deputy Chief under Sheriff Parkey’s administration and is more than familiar with the challenges of policing Lantana.  Chief O’Bara of Highland Village has served in this area for decades and is also the voice and touchstone for all the North Texas Police Chiefs.  If he can’t help he certainly can point your leadership in the right direction.  What can’t continue to persist is ignoring the ever declining ratio of law enforcement resources to citizens in the community.

It is an honor to serve as a police officer for the Town of Double Oak and to work closely with surrounding municipalities delivering law enforcement services. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.

Derrick Watson, Chief of Police
Double Oak, TX

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