|McALLEN, December 5 - Too many of the Department of Public Safety troopers assigned to the South Texas border region do not understand the local Hispanic culture and are unable to speak Spanish.
This is the view of state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and state Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra. To help the troopers become better acculturated to the mores of the region, the legislators hope to secure funding during the next legislative session so DPS can establish a training academy in South Texas.
At present, all DPS troopers have to graduate from a training academy in Austin.
“We need a training center so our state troopers can become familiar with our communities, familiar with the culture, so they get to know the area. You cannot just bring troopers from Amarillo or Lubbock or Dallas to the Valley for two or three weeks and then rotate them out. Some cases in court are dismissed because the trooper does not show up in court. They have left the area and the case gets dismissed,” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, told the Guardian.
At a recent Senate Hispanic Caucus summit in Weslaco, Hinojosa spoke to the Guardian about the inability of many state troopers assigned to the Valley to speak Spanish. He said some state troopers will call Border Patrol for help after they have made a traffic stop because they cannot converse with the driver. He said they do not call Border Patrol to get them detained for lacking immigration papers.
“The information I have received from DPS and the reports I have seen really state that that is an exception to the rule. They do not call Border Patrol,” Hinojosa said. “They sometimes are close to Border Patrol and Border Patrol agents will come to where they made a stop and many times the person they stop does not speak English and unfortunately, the DPS officer is from another region of the state and they do not speak Spanish very well. It is an issue I have brought up with Commander (Jose) Rodriguez from the region and Director Steve McCraw.”
Guerra said that like Hinojosa, he has spoken to DPS Director Steve McCraw about establishing a training academy in the Rio Grande Valley. He said he came up with the idea during the “humanitarian crisis” this past summer, when tens of thousands of undocumented children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala entered the United States via the Valley. Guerra said he and Hinojosa recently wrote to McCraw about setting up a Valley training academy.
“One of the problems we have in our community, and many of us have experienced this, is that these troopers are not from the Rio Grande Valley. They don't understand our culture and they don't understand who we are about. They don't understand our community. I dare say that if we had a facility where we could have troopers trained here, I think they would stay here and they would know our community,” Guerra said, at an Edinburg City Council meeting last Tuesday.
Guerra said he supports having more DPS troopers in the Valley and that their presence is far more preferable to that of National Guard troops. He said having the National Guard on the border “sent the wrong message.” The message the National Guard’s presence sends is that the border region is a war zone, Guerra intimated. “Our Governor saw fit to call the National Guard out, which concerned many of us. Many of us felt (this) sent the wrong message,” Guerra said.
Hinojosa said the National Guard’s presence in the Valley is now being whittled down. “They do not have arrest power, they cannot detain a person. They are here more for political show than being effective,” Hinojosa told the Guardian.
As a result of a decision by the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) this week, Hinojosa said, the number of National Guard troops will be whittled down from 1,000 to 200 between January and March, 2015. He said “an additional 640 DPS troopers will be hired to increase existing enforcement forces, while camera and aircraft surveillance will also be expanded to protect our Texas citizens and to eliminate cartels engaged in smuggling of illegal drugs, people, and firearms.” Hinojosa is the only border legislator on the LBB.
At the Edinburg City Council meeting, Guerra said increasing the presence of DPS troopers on the border is a good thing.
“We all wanted to see more DPS troopers. I think that is always a good thing,” Guerra said. “You know there is only one place in Texas where we train DPS troopers and that is in Austin. That is where they attend the academy. I would like to something like that here. Not just specialty training. I am talking basic training for the academy troopers. I have already spoken to some of the leaders about that and Senator Hinojosa and I wrote a letter to Colonel McCraw along that line.”
Hinojosa and Guerra do not believe they will have to pass legislation to have a DPS training academy built in the Valley. They believe McCraw has the authority to build one anywhere he wants in Texas. The Legislature’s help will be needed with additional funding for DPS to pay for the building of the facility and its operations and maintenance.
Hinojosa said he would like to see more funding to raise the salaries of DPS troopers “they can compete with police officers in big cities as well as providing additional funding to our local communities who need more resources to hire more police officers and deputies.” He said it was his priority “to ensure the safety of our families in the Valley and to support the strained resources of our local law enforcement through cost effective and carefully crafted border security efforts.”
Guerra said he, too, would like to see more funding for local law enforcement.
While Hinojosa and Guerra support more DPS troopers in the Valley, La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a colonia community group in Hidalgo County, does not.
“We do not understand why DPS is here. DPS has done more damage to our community than the National Guard. They are constantly harassing people here. In fact, some of our staff members that live near river complain they get stopped up to five times during a week. I am afraid all the data we have collated from our members tells us they have damaged the quality of life of residents in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Martha Sanchez, a LUPE community organizer, in an interview with the Guardian at the recent Senate Hispanic Caucus summit.
Sanchez said she wished DPS would spread their resources, instead of concentrating their troopers and their vehicles along places such as Military Highway and Alton. “They are so concentrated in such a small area. Having so many stops by DPS is not American. They are supposed to protect us. There are a lot more highways they could be taking care of. We need to let the new governor know we do not need DPS here.”
Astrid Dominguez, of ACLU Texas, agrees with Sanchez. Her office in Brownsville gets calls regularly from Valley residents saying they have been unnecessarily stopped by DPS while driving. Dominguez spoke to the Guardian at the Senate Hispanic Caucus summit.
“We have seen the chaos and the confusion that has caused - the fear in the community when DPS puts up its checkpoints. Parents are afraid to take their kids to school,” Dominguez said. “We want communities that are safe and secure. But when you know a state law enforcement agency at some point will ask your immigration status and will call Border Patrol, you break that trust with the community that law enforcement agencies should have. The federal government has changed its priorities (through Obama’s executive action) but we will have to wait and see how that will look at the border. We live in mixed status communities.”
The Senate Hispanic Caucus set up a taskforce to look at possible legislative agenda issues for the 84th Legislature. On the subject of the border security the taskforce came out in opposition to militarizing the border.
One of the taskforce recommendations states: “Creation of an oversight mechanism to make the Texas Department of Public Safety more transparent and hold it accountable, particularly on issues related to checkpoints and border security contracts.”
Hinojosa said he does not see a contradiction between his recent vote on the Legislative Budget Board to increase border security funding by $86.1 million.
“I do not think there is any doubt we need more accountability and oversight of DPS but I do not think having DPS on the border means increased militarization of the border. The National Guard is military. It is search and destroy. DPS is law enforcement, to serve and protect. That is a big difference,” Hinojosa said.