San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

November 2nd, 2009
Editorial: Mixing public safety with politics

By the Newstreamz editorial board

Responding to our recent story about the San Marcos police and fire fighters associations becoming more deeply involved in the city’s electoral politics, a number of readers have raised interesting and important concerns about conflicts of interest. We agree with such worries, though we don’t agree that public safety employees would refuse service to people who support their political opponents.

Our worry is more abstract. We are unhappy that public safety employees, particularly the police, should descend to politics at all. Public safety should not be co-opted by politics, and the police should be above politics. The need for competent and reliable public safety forces is an item on which all public-spirited individuals can agree. If government has any function at all, it is to provide for public safety. When the city’s public safety employees say they need to organize as a means of ensuring that the city government takes heed of public safety, they are saying, in effect, that the city government is inept. When the city government is insufficiently attentive to public safety, the correct response is not to reflexively vote for the police union’s candidates. The correct response is to change the city council for neglecting Job One. Thus, the union’s true purpose lies elsewhere.

Did we just say “union?” That was intentional, because the police and fire fighters associations are unions. Undoubtedly, somewhere in the legal codes, some distinction says such associations aren’t unions, but it’s a distinction with little difference, because they are unions that exist for the purpose of collectively bargaining pay, benefits and working conditions for their members. And their operations, then, are not geared toward enhancing public safety, but towards enhancing the pay, benefits and working conditions of city employees who provide public safety. The public safety unions are negotiating during meet and confer for increases in vacation, compensation for performing union work and other “soft pay” issues, but not for adding a single officer, detective or emergency staff member.

We do not disparage unions, nor do we believe the men and women who lay their lives on the line for us should be consigned to Spartan lives matching the selflessness of their public deeds. We support the concept of public safety employees collectively bargaining with the city. We take pause, however, when collectively bargaining public safety employees mix their activities with partisan politics, creating circumstances rife with conflicts of interest.

Imagine a city, call it “River City,” in which the police and fire fighters are in the process of collectively bargaining with the city right in the middle of a city council election that could seat a new voting majority. Naturally, the powers behind the sitting council majority wish to have their candidates elected so as to preserve their majority and continue their policies. And, as it happens, the police and fire fighters bargaining with the city make a practice of endorsing candidates in council elections, going so far as to give their preferred candidates money, send out campaign literature on their behalf, and even walk blocks and knock on doors for the candidates they support.

Do we see here the potential for bargaining that goes well beyond pay, benefits and working conditions for public safety employees? And when the police and fire fighters can’t tell us specifically why they would throw their money, muscle and institutional credibility behind the candidates most congenial to the sitting powers on the council, then what are we to think?

Being so indispensible — after all, they are the very embodiment of law and safety in any city — the police and fire fighters stand to wield enormous influence over voters who want to make the right call but don’t regularly follow city politics. How much is that leverage worth to politicians who are going to decide whether to approve the next contract for police and fire fighter vacation and retirement benefits?

As it happens, the San Marcos City Council is to consider approving a new contract with the police force at Monday afternoon’s meeting. An eyebrow might be raised on considering that the council action will take place the day before a city council election in which the police and fire fighters unions have actively supported the candidates who are friendliest to the sitting council majority.

Is it coincidental that the police have worked up a pretty good deal in these hard economic times during which violent crime is famously increasing in San Marcos? While other city employees have been asked to forego annual cost of living increases, the police will receive annual increases of about 4.5 percent in each of the next three years under the pending agreement.

It’s not because San Marcos police are paid poorly. A beginning police officer in San Marcos already earns $44,011. By comparison, an entry level officer in much larger Fort Worth makes $48,838, the entry salary in larger College Station is $37,960, and an academy graduate in larger Waco starts at $42,754. Hays County deputies start at $45,485 and starting cops in New Braunfels earn $45,080.

We understand that police and fire fighters all over Texas and the United States have taken to endorsing local candidates in a practice that has become common, if not routine. But such regularity does not make it a constructive development for democracy or good government.

The police and fire fighters are pursuing their own interests. We don’t criticize them for that, though we do criticize them for wrapping their interests in the American flag and acting as though there were little other hope that government would address public safety.

But the real problem goes deeper. When public safety mixes with politics, when anything mixes with politics, questions such as we’ve raised are bound to arise, because they are political questions. The real problem is that when police and fire fighters enter the business of endorsing city council candidates, it creates conflicts of interest for the city council’s political animals and, by extension, the city staff. We would be happier if the police and fire fighters would stay above the political fray, so our elected representation can’t get too political with public safety.

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0 thoughts on “Editorial: Mixing public safety with politics

  1. Every organization acts in their own best interests when making endorsements, and that alone does not soil the endorsement. The police back Garcia and Thomason because the police feel those two most directly share their views about public safety and compensation, which I am sure the police feel are related. If there is no worry that it will effect the way the police do their job, there is no reason to deny local police their right to political speech. Further, since the council will vote on the new deal prior to the election, there is less concern that the endorsed candidates will pay back the police after the election.

  2. Man, you’re pulling a Lila – don’t post before you’re second cup of coffee!

    I think you either didn’t read the editorial very well – or you’re entirely missing the point. Granted, it’s difficult to be a police officer (or fireman). They should be paid well and given great benefits for what they do because we depend on them for our very lives – and they put their lives at stake for us.

    But the basic question being posed is does the public expect them to be above the political fray? If you ask around your neighborhood, you’ll find that – yes, that is what people expect. I’m often fearful they trade that awesome respect from the community for political power. And it’s not a good trade-off. Power comes and goes – but your reputation in the community is something that should be – and can be – as steady as a rock.

    If the public respects their police and firemen – and admires the job they are doing – then they will make certain the politicians toe the line on providing those services at the necessary level. We put our lives in their hands. Sometimes, you have to be willing to put your future in someone else’s as well. Trust is difficult.

    No one is denying them their political voice. Everyone has a voice. But when you band together as a political force, other rules kick in. Just check out all the laws regarding the regulation of PACs.

  3. I’d just like to say thanks for the editorials on local issues and forum for the discussions that follow. This is something that San Marcos has needed for a long time.

    As for the endorsements, I’ve commented elsewhere. I agree with the police on some issues and disagree on others. I still don’t have a clear picture of what the endorsement means. What is the police/fire position that these candidates support?

    Do they believe they are underpaid? Do they believe they are understaffed? Do they believe they are not trained properly?

    More to the point, if the issue is one or more of these, what are the details? How underpaid are they? Where are they understaffed and by how many people? What sort of training do they lack? Have any of these issues been raised and voted down by Council in the past? What problems could they solve for the community, if they had whatever it is they are looking for? In what way would they use this to make us safer, or improve our quality of life?

    Maybe it is not a training/pay/staffing issue. Maybe they want stricter ordinances. Maybe they want the city to reach out to other departments to try to get them to pitch in where they have jurisdiction. Maybe they want better equipment.

    I have no idea. I can only speculate, based on a couple of broad questions posed to the candidates.

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have never met an individual with whom I agreed on 100% of the issues, much less a union, community organization, PAC or political party. I’d like to see details offered with endorsements.

  4. Lila, I appreciate your critique of my reading, and on second and third efforts (I am a SMHS grad after all), I admit the editorial is vague and could mean different things to different people. You take from the editorial that the public expect the police to stay “above the fray” and trust that others will look out for their interests. I bet they tried that for a while and didn’t like how it worked out. Public expectations of people staying out of the democratic process is more subtle than an authoritarian exclusion, but both tend to deny the target a political voice all the same.
    Your point about the police watering down their influence by asserting it too often is very valid, but I am not sure that it doesn’t cut both ways — I don’t care much who they endorse and I don’t see why it should hold much sway over the electorate (the same for CONA, SMABOR or the local media endorsements).

  5. I agree with Ted’s comments. Endorsements, to be effective and reasonable, need to be detailed. Nice work Ted. Very thoughtful.

    And the police association voting block is huge – don’t kid yourself John. It’s not just the San Marcos Police. They influence Hays County Deputies and any APD who happen to live in the area as well. And their wives. And their grown children. And their parents. And their friends….

    Politicos love them! And will promise them anything for an endorsement…

    I still stand by my wanting more from my police officers. Just call me an idealist. Can’t help it. I love my police officers…. I think it’s the uniform…

  6. In this editorial, your editorial board makes the comment that “violent crime is famously increasing in San Marcos.” I understand public concern over what has happened here recently, but those incidents appear to be clouding your perception of the crime rates. In 2002, there were 4.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents in San Marcos. Violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as reported in the FBI’s “Uniform Crime Report.” In 2003, the violent crime rate in San Marcos began to decrease. Last year, the rate had fallen to 3.1 crimes per 1,000. If the trend holds for the remainder of 2009, the rate will be approximately 2.5, our lowest violent crime rate in many years.

    The people in San Marcos live in one of the safest cities in the State of Texas. Of course, the police department wants to do even better, and we continue to look for better ways to protect and serve. We are arranging for neighborhood meetings to be held at different locations across the community in the next few weeks to discuss our efforts and to seek suggestions on ways to improve. We will publish a schedule for those meetings as soon as the schedule is final. We encourage everyone to attend one of these meetings to voice concerns and to get an accurate picture of how safe San Marcos truly is.

    Howard E. Williams
    Chief of Police

  7. Why would SMPOA and SMPFFA endorse an inexperienced newcomer, over a sitting experienced incumbent, on San Marcos City Council?

    That questionable lapse in good judgment, has caused a significant number of voters here in San Marcos to simply shake their heads in disbelief.

    I’ll be most interested see how much water each of those “professional” endorsements hold in the polls, today.

    At any rate, it has without a doubt, eroded a portion of professional credibility.

  8. Maybe because they are sick and tired of the same old stale incumbents. We need to do the same thing in next year’s election. Kick them all to the curb!

  9. It helps to realize that, in many ways, the lives of public safety officials are exceptionally different from those of their fellow citizens and fellow City employees. They have rigorous standards of employment which require special characteristics of temperament, mind, philosophy–call it what you will. They work shift work, which can be stressful in itself. They meet as their customers many citizens not well accustomed to the rule of law, or by temperament somewhere between disrespectful and hostile to whomever might restrict or punish any breach of good order or community spirit.

    Often these people are well-known for bad behaviors of one sort or another, from erratic driving to rowdy behavior to simply being inside a security cordon of some kind. They must be dealt with, in situations where they almost inevitably have an alibi, rationalization or excuse: “I didn’t do a thing.” Others may be confused, suspicious, paranoid, defiant or even outright silly. All, in the eyes of the law, require an even, steady hand.

    The more adventurous may well be newcomers or outsiders who choose San Marcos as the base of their actions, from DUI to lewdness to auto burglary, theft, vandalism, neglect, aggravated assault, domestic violence, home invasion, theft of services–you name the list of uncivil actions, right down to negligent homicide, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and the like. Their ages range the full gamut, as do their motives, “MO’s, etc. For the cop on the street, is his/her customer the aggrieved citizen, the community itself, or the suspect?

    Strict guidelines, rules and procedures demand special skills in identifying, locating and apprehending suspects, taking them into the system (one way or the other, including forcefully), and following them through the courts or keeping them out. Merely the judgment to decide when the line of legality has been crossed is a weighty matter, and surely anyone can appreciate the threat, often out of the blue, of violence or resistance or even raw and loud disrespect is a pressure source.

    So is the shift work. So is, in their paramilitary world, the duty to stay always calm and “squared away,” to work on a team not picked by oneself. “Propane movies” and TV notwithstanding, a cop still must have a human side, a citizen side–a family, hobbies, church, normal dreams and ideals and career goals. He or she is learning at a fast pace, experientially and often formally. It is no wonder the rate of depression, suicidal thought, substance abuse, and simple lapses in perfect judgment make the headlines. And violence.

    The clientele–public, media,individual citizens, inter-
    agency and outside colleagues–and “bad guys” or dumb guys normally look at an officer seeing only the “uniform,” or only an employee of government. Direct forms of respect are rarer than indirect forms of disrespect. The job can only be satisfying to someone who knows what to expect and has in readiness multiple mindsets and personal skills, as well as a wide range of technical and investigative skills.

    How does one prepare to star in a news feature about a stunning accident or crime? A judgment or action that “might not quite be ‘right’ to some of the community, or a situation that embarrasses the officer and the unit? In extreme cases, having to subdue or shoot a stranger or chase him at high speed, safely apprehending and “taking him down”?

    It is largely because of this constellation of very complicated restrictions and the incredible judgment and reaction one must rise to, on an otherwise quiet San Marcos evening, that public service personnel have long served as Civil Service. The guarantee on one hand is a steady payroll and clear grades of rank, and legal backing where it is needed, and job security.

    San Marcos has been blessed for some time with highly professional police and firefighters, who made up cohesive and more than usually effective protectors of the public health, safety and general welfare in our town. They have been well-paid, with an eye to comparable positions in the region and the state. They have been generally equipped with good and reliable equipment–radios, computers, vehicles, weapons, offensive and defensive gear, continuous training, etc.

    However, they have had fairly rapid growth and turnover, which continually affects the team ethos and the ranking system. We have been blessed with officers who have had very long tenure here, but who become trapped at the top of a pay bracket, for example, and watch new hires come in at or rise quickly to new grades. Periodically, as with any complex organization, morale and conflict and fairness issues creep in, and people feel a need for a climate change. Maybe new and clearer contract stipulations, maybe work realignment, maybe even new leadership. Maybe less intense scrutiny and command mode.

    Election time tends to emphasize the inevitable political nature of public safety, and for years the FOP, the SMPOA, and the SMFFA have interviewed candidates to see which might be allies–not cut resources to unacceptable levels; support recommendations for improvements; spend money where necessary to protect officers better or help perform their duties and support their families; allow for fast-track training and education toward rank, etc.

    It is a weakness that most candidates have no idea of their own public safety duty to the community, or how the “employees” live and work. They are hypersensitive to requests and tender about complaints, and eager to get those bloc votes. Even a moron would know promises are expected, and woe unto the candidate who estranges such a unified group–at this point the discussion is purely mathematical, and the candidate has no return with suggestions for improvement, which makes the choice very narrow, indeed. It’s down to votes for promises, the worst of the political system.

    The sitting Council nor the new candidate should not presume to “mess in the business” that is police, fire and disaster response without some deep knowledge and appreciation of how these organizations work, and how they work best. Even then, the structure is built so the Chief is the responsible party.

    The Chief is also responsible first to the City Manager, who should share some of the deep understanding and the practicalities of the public service team, then to the Civil Service Advisory, if any. The Council, if it is not to create mayhem in the ranks, does better to speak through the manager and/or a delegated group when actually making policy decisions.

    In short, politics and political quid-pro-quo should be avoided like the proverbial plague. As with all its other employees and appointees, the Council should maintain a discreet, but not remote, distance from the ongoing dialogue, until and unless it is the will of the citizens and the circumstances that demand their intervention. Professional relationships should work like that. Makes for better professionals on both sides.

    I have given several good reasons why active citizens should dedicate some evening time to attending the San Marcos Citizen Police Academy. Fun, educational and thought-provoking, it offers a person the chance to hear and learn and do with the officers, giving one better per- spective of what it takes to identify and chase a suspect, apprehend and then process the event, including the long hours of demandingly exact reporting start to finish. And one actually gets to do simulated situations, to shoot at the range, and to drive a controlled chase–far better than a video game, and realistic.

  10. That’s all well and good Mayor Moore, but you did not mention your opinion on the $20,000.00/year pay raise (per officer!) that is on the table presently with this new police contract which extends to infinity, time-wise.

    I’m not disparaging the police with this, but as taxpayers, we are already paying some of the highest wages for our police officers, in the state.

    Wouldn’t our tax money be better spent on MORE officers on the street, rather that a 30% pay increase for each of the existing officers, while the rest of us are dealing with the down economy, in the best way that we can?

    No wonder they backed the “Susan” candidates.

  11. Wow, great discussion on this.

    I do agree with the article that police unions serve only the purpose of increased pay for the officers and injects politics into public safety.

    The police union and their attorneys could care less about improving the safety of the community. When was the last time you heard a police union pushing for a tax cut for citizens; or even for increased standards for their officers.

    My problem is that it is a cycle, they want more pay, they support candidates that will pay them more, they get their pay increase, then they want more pay again.

    Yes we get it, police work is dangerous, they deserve fair pay, but should working families be hit up for “protection money” like the MOB does.

  12. While I certainly agree with Billy Moore when he discusses the job and stress of being a police officer, I think Billy gives way to much praise for the way the San Marcos Police Department is operated. Put yourself in Chief William’s position. How would you like to be the CEO of an organization where you have little or no say in who is hired. You have little or no say in who is promoted and every disciplinary action you make is subject to second guess by the Civil Service Commission and the police union.

    A lot of the citizens of San Marcos have no idea of how the police department really works. Mayor Moore describes the police department as a paramilitary organization. A more apt way to look at the our police department would be to compare it to the post office. Hiring is done almost exclusively by testing. The San Marcos Police administration have little or no input into who gets hired. The top testers are hired with very few exceptions. San Marcos Police officers are promoted by taking paper tests. Suppose a position opens up for Sergeant. Everyone in the department below the rank of sergeant can take the promotion test. The person who scores the highest on the paper test gets the job. The Chief and other ranking officers are not allowed to factor in performance, attitude or command ability. If an officer commits an act which, in the Chiefs opinion requires that the officer be demoted or fired, he stands a good chance of being over ruled by the San Marcos Civil Service Commission. The job of the commission is to make sure that every T was crossed and every I was doted. Given the complexity of the Civil Service code, it is almost impossible to not get caught by some gotcha in the code. The Commission will reverse your decision or make you amend your decision and now you, as the Chief, have real discipline problems in the ranks.

    Civil Service does provide some reasonable protection for a police officer from being fired for a political or personal reason. That trade off, should always be combined with a no union provision. Having both a Civil Service Commission and a police union is a invitation to chaos. Just imagine that General Motors had, not only the union to deal with, but a Civil Service Commission. General Motors would have gone broke long before now. San Marcos needs to pick one or the other, we have civil service or we have a police union but not both.

    What we get with our current system is the police demanding a pay raise when the citizens and taxpayers are struggling to stay afloat and keep their jobs or business. This demand would not be so egregious if our police officers were being poorly paid. They are not. Our police are very well compensated at all ranks. It is difficult for a non city worker like myself to make a meaning full determination of the fairness of our pay because other cities will not honestly provide that information and I can not determine the cities pay rate for police by looking at the budget. To make an honest comparison between San Marcos and other cities, we need to look at, not just base pay, but at total compensation. What extra pay do San Marcos police officers receive. I am told that almost every officer in the department, including the command structure of Commanders, is receiving not only over time pay but pay for extra training, responsibilities and training. That means that if you look at the budget and see that a police sergeant makes $60,000, the true number may be much higher. It would be useful if we could get the City Administration to actually provide us with true budget numbers for the police department so the council and citizens could be more objective when discussing police issues.

    Every year the SMPD has a presentation where they outline their production numbers for the last year. I attended one of these several years ago and was astounded when the presentation was given regarding police complaints by the public. Since it has been several years ago, I may not be completely accurate but the numbers were that during the year there had been 5 complaints by the public and none were found to be valid by the internal investigation. First, the low number of complaints tells you right off that something is wrong. In a town where there is so much friction between the students and police, that number should be much higher. Poor people who are mistreated by cops generally are not likely to complain. Students are much more likely to complain when they feel they have been mistreated. Are complaining citizens discouraged from making a formal complaint? Is there some official form that is given out to complainants or are they “just given a talk” and made to think somebody is listening to their complaint? Acceptable police procedure would require that each and every person who wants to make a complaint to the police dept. be immediately supplied with the appropriate form and not dissuaded from filling out the complaint. Then the Chief and City Manager could periodically go over the complaints and determine if there is a problem and if the internal investigation are any more than a cover up. After that experience at the police presentation, I became suspicious of all of their numbers.

    I don’t think any of the above makes me a cop hater. It just makes me a long term witness to San Marcos police problems. I am a realist. I know some excellent San Marcos Police officers. I also know some real problem cops that should not be carrying a badge, yet alone a gun. That is the way it is with most police departments but I think we have more problems than most with our dysfunctional system to manage the department. We have some problems with the way our police dept. operates and letting a police union extract actual or implied promises from Council candidates is just wrong. I think most of the candidates over estimate the strength of an endorsement and money from the police and fire union. Look at the difference in the vote totals between Thompson and Garcia. If the police union had much influence on the voters, those two candidates numbers should have been much closer together.

    The Union just can not deliver that many votes because most of the police do not live in San Marcos. That is another issue for another day but police who do not live where they work are in danger of becoming an occupying force that sees every issue in terms of us against them.

    Charles Sims

  13. Well, Charles, I might as well have written your musings myself. You speak with straight tongue. The ongoing politicization of groups in all kinds of public service positions–including cafeteria workers, nurses, teachers– can only end in governing bodies’ being governed themselves by the people THEY help to select. As is, the City negotiates one way for policy and another for management. A dry ship only carries one captain, maybe one spare.

    A government is not a steel mill–can’t be any more run by organized interest groups, or alliances of them, pummelling and striking over any one conflict–the work of government involves looking at a “better” future, and swimming up the learning curve toward the endless paper stream to be considered the “winner.”

    Woe unto the Chief, who stands under the shadow, not only of the City Manager on the one hand; but of his employees with powerful agendas, as well as the “clientele,” a fairly strong driver; and the citizens, from whom will emerge supporters and enemies. Sure as springtime.

    And of course Council administration, mostly lacking the ability to think as their subordinate specialists do, or even understand the realities of the job and the pressure levels of stress one endures. Those are multiplied by the demand of reporting through so many agencies to a mostly uninvolved public. (The politicians aren’t the “doers” in government, generally. They are more like traffic safety guards.)

    Reminds one of a boat sailing with poor rigging, with chains and hawsers interfering with the performance of the boat. Of course I have some investment in this metaphorical boat, and learned little not to respect during the time when I often saw them up close and personal. They make a great team, and are capable of performing like Plastic Man, serving many critical interests with general high competence.

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