No Republican has won a countywide race in El Paso County since 1984, but Sheriff Richard Wiles’ opponent in the Nov. 8 election, Tom Buchino, is working hard to change that.
Wiles, 55, a former El Paso police chief, is seeking his third term as sheriff, promising more modernization and citing reductions in crime – along with $22 million in efficiencies – that have helped the county avoid tax increases for two years.
Buchino, 53, is a retired Army Green Beret sergeant major with a Silver Star to his name who looks and talks the part because he hasn’t wandered far from it.
He runs Tactical Ranch, a private firearms and tactics training center on more than 300 acres in Far East El Paso County. It is used by local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as military special operations forces from all branches.
Buchino has been endorsed by the unions representing El Paso County sheriffs and El Paso police, officers in smaller departments in the region, as well as Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, a Democrat.
And Buchino’s taking the fight to Wiles, charging that he has ruined the department the late Sheriff Leo Samaniego left behind through “oppressive” management and a morale-breaking scheduling system.
“The morale in the Sheriff’s Department is nonexistent,” Buchino told El Paso Inc.
He promises to bring back cooperation with area police departments that has fallen by the wayside under Wiles and to forge relations with the Juárez police department, whose chief, he said, is also backing him.
Wiles, who has 34 years in law enforcement, disputes Buchino’s assertion that the department is in decline, noting that crime outside El Paso city limits is down 20 percent.
In response to Buchino’s promise to raise standards, Wiles brings up a comment Buchino made at an August campaign gathering – he criticized Wiles for arranging extra firearms training for female detention guards so they could pass the test to become deputies.
“When I hear that three female deputies took nine times to qualify with their sidearm before they got on the streets, I will tell you with Tom Buchino as your sheriff, they’ll be working at Walmart,” Buchino said.
Wiles said he authorized extra training for the women, all of whom passed their firearms tests, because women make up only 6 percent of the force.
“They definitely bring a dynamic to patrolling that is necessary in contemporary law enforcement,” Wiles said. “You have to have diversity in your agency, and we have to comply with federal and state rules and be an equal opportunity employer.”
Buchino doesn’t deny the Walmart remark, but said it didn’t mean he’d fire those deputies if elected.
“I’m not going to go in and relieve anybody, but we’re going to correct the deficiencies in the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “No. 1, I’m going to change the culture immediately because the culture wants to change.”
He claims to have 300 law officers campaigning for him when they’re off duty. That hasn’t helped him catch Wiles for a face-to-face debate at a political forum yet.
“Every campaign has a strategy,” Wiles said. “We look at what’s best for this campaign to get information out to as many voters as quickly as possible. I’m not ruling out that I may do a debate in the future.
“But right now, my concentration is on the door to door, the meetings with organizations and community members that I feel give me direct contact with the voter.”
El Paso Inc. spoke with Wiles and Buchino in separate interviews. Sheriff Wiles’ interview is first, on page 18A, followed by challenger Buchino on page 19A.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622
Q: You’ve been sheriff for two terms, going on eight years. What have you accomplished and why are you running again?
When my administration and I got into the organization, we saw there was a lot of need for improvements in technology and efficiencies. We’ve worked hard to make that happen.
We updated equipment in the field. Officers got Tasers and new cars and we got a new radio system. They can hear us in Tularosa now, so it’s a great system. We’ve done a lot of upgrades. We’re working on body cameras now.
The other part of that was looking at how the department ran. There were staffing and shift work issues we felt we could improve upon. We went to 12-hour shifts. We ended up eliminating almost $4 million in overtime and getting more productive time from the deputies in the field. Our staffing in the field has improved by about 75 percent.
Q: How are the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department different?
The main job of any sheriff in the state of Texas is running the jail. That’s why the majority of our staff works the jail. We provide that service to all the law enforcement agencies in this county by holding their prisoners. The majority come from the Police Department.
On the law enforcement side, while we have jurisdiction everywhere in the county and we do work in the city from time to time, we typically don’t because we’re limited in resources. We patrol in the unincorporated areas and we do all the process serving out of the courthouse, the warrants for arrest, indictments, civil process, divorces, child support.
Police handle their warrants, but when that person is indicted, then that warrant is canceled and it’s ours and we’ve got to find him. They can execute those warrants, too.
Q: Republican Tom Buchino is a former Green Beret whose company trains law enforcement officers and soldiers. What do you think this election is really about for the people of El Paso County?
I do think it comes down to experience and knowledge of this community. I’m from El Paso. I’ve been here over 50 years, graduated from here, and raised my family here. I’ve been in public service for over 35 years now, starting in the fire department for about 1½ years.
My law enforcement experience cannot be matched by him – 26 years in the Police Department, eight years as sheriff, involved in community policing and involved with the public in bringing down crime.
Since I’ve been sheriff, crime in the outlying county is down 20 percent. We’ve saved $22 million to this point through our efficiencies, and I have a great relationship with the community.
Q: Buchino has picked up the endorsements from all of the law enforcement organizations in the county, notably the sheriff’s and police unions. Why are they opposing you?
Typically the sheriff and police union have a coalition, and if one of them backs a candidate, the other one does it automatically. That’s what I understand happened. The sheriff’s union endorsed him and the police union went with them.
I think the changes in the department have been difficult for the agency and specific employees. The contract passed overwhelmingly with 77 percent of the vote because I think they realized they had to do it.
The county judge would tell you the old contract was not sustainable. The budget was increasing too fast to be supported by taxes. But they voted out the union president who was in at the time, Jose Marrero. I think that was the backlash. They knew they had to pass it, but they didn’t like it.
I think their endorsement of Buchino was part of that. By the way, I’ve never had the endorsement of law enforcement unions, except for 2008 when I had the support of a small breakaway from the sheriff deputies’ union.
But I have the support of many employees of the sheriff’s office and the constables. And I do have the endorsement of the Local 51 fire union, and the Central Labor Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Realtors and the mayor and the previous mayor.
Q: How have your officers reacted to 12-hour shifts? Buchino says the officers don’t like it at all. He says the change may have helped the budget, but it has altered their lives because they’re working much longer days.
Everyone knows change can be hard. In the short time I’ve been sheriff, there have been significant changes in that agency. I understand that it can be very difficult for employees who have been there many years. I also hope people know that 12-hour shifts and the 84-hour straight pay every two weeks was in the contract and approved by 77 percent of the membership two years ago.
I had implemented it, and they brought it up in collective bargaining and it was put in the contract with the 84-hour pay period and the 12-hour shifts.
Q: But is it popular? What was the advantage of going to an 84-hour pay period and 12-hour shifts?
Certainly, there are disadvantages. Twelve hours is a long day. But many professions use 12-hour shifts. I know a lot of jails that do and a lot of prisons. The medical profession does. Far more than not love it.
One of the main reasons is that every employee gets a three-day weekend every other week. Before, when we had officers working straight days Monday through Friday with weekends off, other officers didn’t have access to that schedule. They would get Tuesday-Wednesday off.
And because we were using so much overtime, officers were working double shifts. So they were working 16 hours instead of 12.
This has really shortened many employees’ days and given them that three-day weekend every other week and regular weekends in between.
The downside is they have to work 84 hours of straight time before they start getting overtime.
Q: Does the schedule create problems at home for officers who aren’t spending time with their kids or their spouse?
The information we’re getting back is it has helped families because they’re getting more time to spend with their families. But just like everything else, you can’t please everyone. I understand that. But this wasn’t something we did overnight. We talked to the union. We did feel it would have a positive impact on employees overall, but not everybody, clearly.
Q: And what about the budget?
We’re saving about $4 million in overtime a year, and it’s been two years in a row. I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that the $4 million we saved last year and this year is among the reasons why the county hasn’t had a tax increase in two years.
So, while the employees got pay raises, the overtime savings allowed us to keep the same $103-million budget, and that happened again this year.
Q: What other changes do you want to make?
Now that we’ve got a lot of the basic efficiencies and technology in place, there are a lot of things that we have been seeing as problems that we want to put more effort into.
One of the big ones is mental health. I’m co-chair of the criminal justice committee with the El Paso Behavioral Health Consortium. We’ve been looking at this for about the last year and a half, and they’ve been looking at it a lot longer.
It involves the whole criminal justice process from a deputy’s or police officer’s interactions with people suffering a mental health crisis, to when and if the person gets booked and how we deal with that person in the jail.
We have all of our deputies certified as mental health officers. We’ve been training in the jails. We worked with the county commissioners to get a contract with Emergence Health Network to be our mental health provider.
We still have a lot to do. One of the big things on the horizon is with the eventual opening of the new jail annex and 432 new beds. Part of that expansion includes a special needs unit.
Q: Do you think the attention that’s being paid to mental health issues and working with Emergence have improved things? We’ve had some unfortunate shootings of people with mental issues in El Paso.
Yes, it has. You remember when that was going on. When I became police chief, I actually ran the whole department through the mental health peace officer course, and the shootings dropped. So it definitely has a positive impact on how officers respond to incidents and interact – not just people having mental health issues, but to people who go through traumatic events.
Q: Have your heard anything from Buchino’s camp to make you think he would raise the immigration issue to a higher level?
I do recall a conversation at some meeting about training officers on immigration issues, which leads me to believe it’ll probably go that way. The platform of the Republican Party tends to be pretty hardline in that area and he’s running as a Republican.
Q: Do you have other concerns?
I think the other issue is militarizing law enforcement agencies. I believe that is not good for civilian law enforcement and it certainly doesn’t fit well here. You get that impression from his background and training that that’s what he wants.
Q: According to Buchino, you have declined to attend political forums including four staged by El Paso Community College, and you’ve failed to appear at others you said you would attend. Is that true, and if it is, why won’t you face Tom Buchino?
First, when this election process started, there were two forums he didn’t go to that I did - EPISO and Border Interfaith. So I could say the same. The community college one was right before the runoffs. In my opinion, it was too early. Voters were concentrating on races that were contested.
Every campaign has a strategy. We look at what’s best for this campaign to get information out to as many voters as quickly as possible. I’m not ruling out that I may do a debate in the future. But right now, my concentration is on the door to door, the meetings with organizations and community members and things that I feel give me direct contact with the voter.
Q: Do you owe it to voters to meet your opponent face to face, to let people hear from both of you?
I work full time, and I teach at UTEP and I have a family. The campaign is very time consuming. I believe debates have a purpose and the main purpose is when you have candidates who are not known. It gives an opportunity for people to learn about the opponent’s philosophy and background and education.
I’m known in this community because I do this all the time. I’m always out in the community, talking to groups and organizations. So, when you say that debates will help me in that respect, I’m not so sure.
Q: You’ve been campaigning, but a lot of people don’t know you. Tell us about yourself, what you do.
My wife and I own a company called Covenant Special Projects, better known in El Paso as Tactical Ranch. It’s a firearms and tactics training center where we train local, state and federal law enforcement agents and agencies with my team of former Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine special operations and Air Force special operations. We also train military special operations forces for the global war on terrorism and the threats that domestic law enforcement and our military face.
We also provide very discrete protective services for U.S. diplomats, allied nations, heads of state and affluent individuals in some of the world’s most austere environments.
Q: What is your background?
I served 23 years in the U.S. Army, about 19½ of that in special forces. I’ve served in all capacities in the special operations community, from demolitions and engineering to weapons to intelligence. I was promoted to the most senior rank in the special forces regiment, sergeant major.
I had tours to over 52 nations in all hemispheres, conducting not just direct action or military combat operations, but also humanitarian, civil affairs, nation-building and community-building operations as well.
I retired from the military in late 2005-early 2006. My wife is originally from El Paso, grew up in Northeast. So we made the decision that of all the places in the world we could retire, it was here in El Paso.
We came back to El Paso. I also was hired by a company called Blackwater, our nation’s largest private security firm, where I served at an executive level responsible for their high-threat division.
We later made the decision to start our own company, move to El Paso and do what we’re currently doing.
Q: Why did you decide to run for El Paso County sheriff?
Because of my experience working with law enforcement in the past 12 years in a training and advisory capacity, I’ve known law enforcement personnel throughout our nation. About 18 months ago, men and women of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, Border Patrol and some of the smaller municipalities here started coming to the ranch and encouraging me to run for sheriff.
They did so because of what they identified as a degradation of former Sheriff Leo Samaniego’s department because of Mr. Wiles’ leadership or lack of, and because of the policies and procedures that don’t allow them to exercise their initiative as officers to truly protect and serve the community.
As a nonpolitical person, I laughed at it originally. Then I got a little more educated and learned more about the issues facing our law enforcement and the issues that adversely affect the public here. My wife and I, as Christians, prayed on this decision. I reached out to law enforcement throughout the region and asked them if they thought I was a good fit. They encouraged me to run.
Q: Who has endorsed you?
I’ve been endorsed by the El Paso Municipal Officers Association, the El Paso Sheriff Officers Association. I’ve also been endorsed by former Sheriff Jimmy Apodaca and Leo Samiengo’s family, Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, a Democrat; Socorro Independent School District officers and city of Socorro officers, as well as officers in Anthony, Texas and New Mexico.
Q: When you say the sheriff isn’t letting people use their initiative and about degradation of the department, what do you mean?
The morale in the Sheriff’s Department is nonexistent. There’s been a division created by Mr. Wiles and his administration between the detention officers, the deputies, the dispatchers and so on. That’s not conducive to a high-performance team. It has to have one common objective – to protect and serve this community.
When I’m elected sheriff, I will assume responsibility for everything that office does or fails to do. That includes morale. The culture in the sheriff’s office is 180 degrees different from when Mr. Samaniego left after 21 years. The issues that have been presented in this campaign were nonexistent 15 years ago under Samaniego.
Q: There’s conflict between the three operations of the Sheriff’s Department – the deputies, detention guards and dispatchers?
Q: Caused by what?
Caused by lack of team effort. Everything that office does is the responsibility of that sheriff. Leadership is the process of influencing your team members in such a manner as to accomplish a mission. That mission can only be accomplished when all three groups, or four if you include civilian support services, work with a common objective. That’s exactly what’s not occurring.
We have a regional training academy at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, and other regions and smaller municipalities used to train there and now they don’t.
When I went to Juárez and met with the chief of police, I learned there was no liaison or coordination of effort between the sheriff and the chief of police and our sister city.
When you look at the department’s training standards, they’re abysmal. Recently, three female deputies that graduated the deputy academy required nine times to qualify with their sidearm, their pistol. That’s not a standard. That’s a social experiment to get people into positions.
Q: I saw a video of you addressing this issue in August. I asked Sheriff Wiles about it, and he said only 6 percent of the deputies in the department are women. He said in the Police Department, it’s 16 percent and that’s bad, but 6 percent’s abysmal.
Q: Wiles said he went out of his way in a number of instances to help women who were getting through the academy physically and otherwise with their firearms training. He said they did qualify and are now working as deputies. But in the video, you said if you’re elected sheriff, they’ll be working for Walmart.
Q: Would you dismiss them from the department?
No, we’re going to go back and train. I’m not going to go in and relieve anybody, but we’re going to correct the deficiencies in the Sheriff’s Department. No. 1, I’m going to change the culture immediately because the culture wants to change. I campaign every day with men and women off duty, not in uniform using non-county assets of men and women of the Sheriff’s Department, the Police Department, Border Patrol, retired Border Patrol.
Every day, we do this. They want tough standards. Mr. Wiles says he helped them with a standard. That is not a standard. A standard is the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement standard to graduate from the academy. They will meet the standard or they’re terminated from that position and go back to the detention officer ranks. They can reapply and go through the vetting and hiring process and academy again. What we can’t do is reduce standards.
Q: You have described Wiles as oppressive as sheriff and as police chief before that. What do you mean?
The primary goal of the sheriff of any county is to defend the constitutional rights of the people. Immediately following the Feb. 28 unanimous vote by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Association to endorse me, we had people putting on bumper stickers and going to Juárez to get their car decorated, “Buchino for sheriff.”
Q: Deputies and their personal cars?
Yes. But immediately following that, those cars were being photographed. While they were at work, chief deputies assigned to work as Mr. Wiles’ administrators were out taking photos of deputies’ cars. Those individuals, 22 most recently, have been called in for mandatory random urinalysis tests.
So when we talk about oppressive acts, we’re talking about fear, intimidation, and people being told if they don’t do this, they will be moved out of their position.
We’ve had individuals that have taken exams for lieutenant and scored very well, but they are overlooked and passed over for promotion because they’re not closely connected to Mr. Wiles.
Q: Wiles implemented a new schedule for deputies and jailers that includes 12-hour shifts, an 84-hour pay period, three-day weekends every other week. He says it’s saved the county more than $4 million a year in overtime and allowed the county to avoid tax increases. But I understand the officers do not like it.
No, they do not like it. About the $4 million, it depends on which day you catch my opponent talking about the money he’s saving. I’ve heard $20.5 million, $5 million and I’ve heard $4 million. I’ve looked through the budget, and I don’t see the cost savings.
When you look at the 84-hour workweek, understand that was in the contract and the men and women of the union agreed to that.
Here’s some adverse things we haven’t looked at about the 12-hour day. We haven’t looked at the physiological and psychologic aspects of these individuals working 12 hours. These people are undermanned, especially in the jail system. So we have jailers that are working 12-hour shifts that don’t have a 30- or 40-minute lunchtime to go somewhere. They’re eating at their station.
Looking at sheriff’s deputies, you have them in the vehicle for 12 hours. Has anybody conducted a study to see what the adverse effects are? When they get home, I can imagine what they do is eat a little something and go to bed and wake up and do it again until they get their break.
Various organizations in the community, from the Boys and Girls Clubs to the little league and religious groups, say they’re not seeing involvement by Sheriff’s Department employees. Well, they’re working 12-hour shifts.
Before going to 12-hour shifts, deputies worked a 10-hour work shift and jail personnel worked an eight-hour shift. It seems none of these people are physically happy with the 12-hour shift.
Q: What would you say about the working relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department? And would you work closer with the police than Wiles’ department?
I’d like to think that. I’ve met Chief Greg Allen and have the utmost respect for his service to this community. He’s not political. He’s a police chief who operates the department to protect and serve the community.
He has a warrior mentality, but he is compassionate and professional, and I believe that because I am not a political person. I am running to be sheriff, not a Democrat sheriff or a Republican sheriff. I’ve never read a law that has a D or an R next to it. It’s about enforcement of the law.
My opponent is a politician. He operates to serve the political aspect of this community and the political elite. I won’t.
The sheriff is supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer in this county, and not just the guy in charge of the Sheriff’s Department. In my opinion, that means that the sheriff should be working closely with the smaller municipalities’ police chiefs, El Paso’s chief and the chief of police in Juárez.
Q: Is that not going on?
It’s not going on. When I went to Juárez, the chief of police was thrilled I was there and endorsed me if I wanted to use his endorsement. But he said he’d never met anybody from El Paso law enforcement.
Q: Including the Police Department?
He said he’d never met the sheriff.
Q: Has he met the El Paso police chief?
I did not ask him.