Jun 07, 2012

Facing Budget Cuts, Policing Goes Increasingly Private

By Efren Salinas
For Reporting Texas

Drastic cuts in law enforcement budgets across Texas have put the hurt on community policing in some novel ways. In 2011, the entire five-person police force of the Alto, Texas, was put on furlough in order to save money. And across South Texas, as elsewhere in the state, trained law enforcement officers are now turning to private security gigs to fill the gaps in their paychecks.

Budget cuts, in particular to state and federal grant funds, means less money for new hires and paid overtime for officers and deputies.  Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño says grants that used to equal approximately $20 million a year for the 12 South Texas counties located on the border with Mexico, including Hidalgo County, are now closer to $4 million.

“I used to be able to put in a $2 to $3 million budget for overtime and equipment … and personnel. Now I can only put in for $600,000,” Trevino said.

In light of such cutbacks, police deputies are now more than ever moonlighting as private security guards at grocery stores, theaters, weddings and in some cases doing personal bodyguard service in order to supplement their income.

“Some deputies are making anywhere between 12 to 15 or even 20,000 a year extra on off duty security” Treviño said.

Vincent J. Webb, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, calls this trend the privatization of law enforcement. While police departments remain focused on enforcing the law, Webb says they have less time to interact within the community, an important element in the justice system.

“In the good old days, we turned to our police for a lot of things,” Webb said. “They were the information providers, the people you turned to in all variety of situations, not just when a crime occurred, but that’s happening less and less.”

But Treviño contends that the rise in private off-duty security is a good thing. “I welcome it for several reasons,” he said. “It helps officers help themselves, and it puts more authorized police presence in the community.”

The shift in the nature of policing comes at a time when there is a heightened concern for personal security. Violence south of the border has in some cases driven affluent Mexican nationals to border cities in South Texas where they increasingly hire bodyguards from the pool of experienced law enforcement personnel.

John Chambers, police chief of Indian Lake, a small town in South Texas, is also owner of Border Security and Investigations, a private security firm. He said the recent violence in Mexico has prompted people to become more aware of their need for security.

“If you have wealth or currency or are in a position of influence on other people, you know you are a target,” Chambers said.

Such concerns strike Treviño as ironic. Over the past three years, violent crime is down 24 percent in Hidalgo County, he says, and an aggregate statistical analysis shows an overall decrease of 64 percent in all types of crimes.

“The reason that there is extra security is because people want a peace of mind,” he said. “They want to be relieved of the fear of crime not crime itself.”

According to Webb, the real concern is the level of protection, or lack of it, that private security agencies can provide. In the best-case scenario, companies use off-duty uniformed law enforcement officers, who are trained in the due process of the law. But unfortunately, says Webb, that is not always economically feasible.

“I’m a lot less concerned about off-duty officers or men and women who have gone through military training as MPs,” Webb said, “but you get what you pay for.”

Chambers has eight off-duty police officers on his staff at Border Security and Investigations in Indian Lake. But when more security guards are needed for a particular job, he says hires only trained and licensed officers. Given the dangers of the work, bodyguards themselves can become targets, not only of violence but also of blackmail and bribery.

“You have to be mindful of the staff as you hire it, making sure that they have integrity and the fortitude to handle … threats against themselves,” Chambers said.