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.