Fort Bend County law enforcement agencies at odds over response times

February 16, 2019 GMT

Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Constable Wayne Thompson is challenging a recent procedural change made by Sheriff Troy Nehls that affects which law enforcement officers are dispatched during a 911 call.

Thompson and other county officials believe the modification, which took effect on Jan. 1, will lead to higher than usual response times, specifically to unincorporated areas of Fort Bend County, where the sheriff’s office now decides whether it will send a constable’s deputy to a service call - even if the call takes place in the neighborhood the constable is contracted to patrol, Thompson said.

In one at least one instance, Thompson said sheriff’s deputies arrived to a scene seven minutes later than a constable’s deputy.

“I don’t think there is any reason that they can give that justifies why they would not dispatch us to calls,” Thompson said.

According to the Sheriff’s office, the change has not negatively impacted service calls in Fort Bend County and has even led to “quicker response times.”

In statement, FBCSO’s Chief Deputy David Marcaurele said the agency had compared average response times to dispatched calls for a six-month period prior to January 2019, and the switch had reduced response times in three of its patrol districts, including District 5, which covers most of Fort Bend County Precinct 3.

“The result is that we saw a 14.4 second reduction in average response time to dispatched calls,” Marcaurele said. “We will take an improvement of service any day, and in the end, know that is what is expected of our dedicated employees working in dispatch and those deputies (sheriff and constable) working in the field.”

Thompson called the estimates from the sheriff’s office “out-of-context,” because “January is a slow month and there’s no way you can compare that to the last six months.”

Prior to Jan. 1, the sheriff’s office would dispatch the closest deputy to the service call. The deputy would arrive on scene, advise other law enforcement of their arrival and clear the scene. As of Feb. 12, the agency, which has authority over all 911 calls in unincorporated parts of Fort Bend County, has not been utilizing constable deputies, Thompson said.

The sheriff’s new policy “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” to Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers. He said he worries the change negatively targets residents, homeowners’ associations and municipal utility districts that enter into contracts with the constable’s office for paid patrol deputies.

It’s a matter of life and death, he said.

“We’ve got a certified peace officer who is in the neighborhood,” Meyers said. “He is just as certified as a sheriff’s deputy. Just because his services are paid directly by the subdivision, rather than through the property taxes that are paid generally, to me that doesn’t make a difference between their qualifications.”

House alarms make up the majority of calls, and Meyers said he is not aware of any instances where someone was injured or robbed as a result of a delay in service.

“I just don’t want there to be a case where that happens,” he said. “What I want is - if we have certified peace officer on site, dispatch him. I don’t care if he is a constable, or a sheriff’s deputy or he is contract or regular. If he’s there, that’s the guy that you dispatch because they can get there the quickest.”

Now, the commissioner said he is considering a move that could strip Nehls of his dispatch authority.

At a recent homeowner’s association community leaders’ luncheon, county officials discussed the procedural change, which has sparked a renewed interest in overhauling how 911 calls are handled throughout Fort Bend County.

Meyers said his office researched dispatch operations in other counties and found that in counties similar in size to Fort Bend, such as Williamson County and Montgomery County, residents benefited from a third-party dispatch center independent from the sheriff’s office.

Montgomery County has roughly 200,000 fewer people than Fort Bend County, which is home to roughly 760,000 people, according to recent census data. The Montgomery County Emergency Communication District, which is run by a board of managers., handles all emergency calls in Montgomery County.

“Let’s see if that is a model that is workable for Fort Bend County,” Meyers said. “The Commissioner’s Court as a whole has not taken that on yet, but I think we will be looking at it as a result of this unfortunate controversy that has come up.”

Marcauerele said the debate was political in nature.

“(Thompson) did not like this change and has put out information that has alarmed people and created a political scenario based upon fear and not reality,” he said.

It had been “business as usual” until the start of the new year, Thompson said.

“If it’s a political stunt, then it’s got to be with the person that changed it, which is the sheriff’s office,” he said. “I have no political anything. We didn’t ask for this. We’ve asked for it to go back to the way it was.”