First in a series
By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
The first night of the Citizens Academy at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department attracted more than 30 residents including retirees, a college student considering the police academy and a woman initially wary of police.
For the next 11 weeks, different sheriff’s department heads from the jail to detectives to the officers behind the wheel will show what happens behind closed doors and on the street in an effort to make the public more aware of the people protecting the county.
Before Sheriff Troy Nehls spent an hour giving an overview of the department’s challenges and successes, each student received a packet that included business cards with Nehl’s cell phone, a flow chart of the department with “the people of Fort Bend County” at the top and the code of ethics for the department.
Among the statements in the code: “ I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others.”
Nehls, a former constable and police officer, was elected sheriff in 2012 on a claim that he would change the culture of the department and what he called a “dismal crime solve rate.”
He said his promise is working. That change in the number of crimes solved occurred because deputies used to work Monday through Thursday and would come in on Fridays if they felt like it.
“It was like bankers hours. We moved the detectives to evening and reduced overtime to 67 percent,” he said.
Fort Bend County is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation according to the Kinder Institute at Rice University. The population is growing with much expansion headed north towards Katy said Nehls.
Despite the growth, “we have 32 percent reduction in burglaries in three years and we’re solving 400 percent more,” Nehls told the class.
The majority of the growth is the northern part of the county. Nehls said the department will eventually have a satellite station there.
Half of the robberies occur in the Mission Bend and Teal Bend neighborhoods in the southern part of the county he said, but authorities don’t get calls from those neighborhoods with the same urgency as he gets from someone in the Pecan Grove neighborhood. Nehls wants to change that.
He said he is pleased to serve a diverse county, which represents ethnicities of Asian, Latin, African and European descent.
“We have embraced the diversity we have here. If you don’t, you lose out. I trust there is a relationship between the community and law enforcement agencies and I think we are not experiencing those issues you see elsewhere,” Nehls said.
Nehls said some area critics have wanted to talk with him about race relations.
“We average 35,000 traffic stops and we’ve had a handful of complaints. We don’t have that problem here,” said the sheriff referring to racially charged killings of civilians and police and concerns of bias.
He told of how he chastised a captain who put two deputies in a car while working in the Mission Bend and Teal Run neighborhoods.
“I said ‘why did you do that’ and he said ‘because of everything happening with the riots.’ I said, ‘are we supposed to be afraid of black people today? Are black people supposed to be afraid of the law?’”
“It’s the small, small minority percentage of officers who should not have a gun and badge, but don’t judge us. And not everybody marching in protest wants to kills us, they just want to protest,” Nehls said.
The sheriff said he has attended Friday sessions at a mosque and Muslim friends have spent Christmas with his family. Reaching out to different cultures in the community makes a difference when it comes to policing, he said, because he believes he would be informed of a threat before it came to fruition.
As he spoke, one resident praised him for his interaction with the Muslim community and said his name is recognized and presence is appreciated. Another woman from Missouri City told the sheriff that she was initially wary of police and afraid of what would happen during a police stop.
“I’m so glad I came here,” she said. “I was terrified of what kind of officer would approach me. Now I am excited about finding out the process so I can educate people who are very frustrated and they won’t come to a meeting like this. It’s important to be informed on both sides,” said the woman.
The two-hour free sessions are held every Thursday. Future sessions will include a tour of the jail and members of the detention bureau will discuss the responsibilities of the sheriff to receive and house prisoners.
A major challenge for the sheriff’s office is the increase in mentally ill people entering the jails.
“Mental illness is a huge, huge problem. Look at who have made the news making horrific crimes. We have had three suicides in the jail, 20 percent of our inmates have some sort of mental illness. The county jail is the number one mental health provider in the state because they have closed facilities. Instead of spending $188 million on the border, maybe we should spend it on mental illness,” said the sheriff, whose frustration was palpable.
The $188 million referenced the amount of money diverted to patrol the borders as an answer to an “immigration problem.”
As a result, the Texas Highway Patrol has traffic officers on 10-day rotations working the borders and traffic stops, leaving policing accidents to the sheriff department.
Future lessons include an overview of the detention bureau and tour of the jail; a visit from the SWAT team. A shoot, don’t shoot scenario to illustrate the difficulty of split second decisions, and a narcotics task force visit.
If the student citizens attend the minimum of nine sessions, they can graduate and eventually go on ride-alongs with the deputies and volunteer their services to the department.