I took a whirlwind tour of the Frank Wing Magistration and Detention Center on Monday. It’s kind of a bare-bones operation, isn’t it? It took me a while to choose the right word to describe it. I settled on “squalor.” The detention center is squalid. I saw detainees sleeping on the concrete floor behind clear plastic walls, using their shirts for pillows. The cops didn’t look comfortable either, squished into a claustrophobic little office lined with flat-screen PCs as they filed their reports.
I would show you photographs, but unlike the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the center’s Presiding Judge John Bull wouldn’t let me bring my camera past security. I’d ask whether you’ve been there yourself, but you aren’t returning my calls — not about the grand jury’s rulings on police shootings, not about your opposition to the needle-exchange program, not about whether you plan to implement HB 2391, a new law-enforcement tool that could save taxpayers thousands and keep more police officers patrolling the streets instead of pushing paperwork. No one in your office will even call back and say, “No comment.”
Let me jog your memory about the bill. After all, there are so many each session. HB 2391, effective September 1, allows peace officers (we’re talking the police and the sheriff’s deputies) more options for handling certain midemeanors, like marijuana possession and driving without a valid license. Instead of arresting the suspect and spending the next three or four hours filling out paperwork, a law-enforcer could issue a citation requiring the suspect to appear in court. Colorado County is already planning to use HB 2391 — when their officers make stops under this law, they’ll bring suspects to the station, fingerprint and photograph them, then send them on their merry way with summons citations to appear in court 60 days later.
HB 2391 was a homegrown law first proposed by Bexar County Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight and it received virtually no opposition in the Lege this spring. County Judge Nelson Wolff helped the bill cross the finish line with a please-help-us-relieve-our-jail-overcrowding letter to Governor Rick Perry. Now the ball’s in your court; only you can decide to make cite-and-summons happen.
This new law directly applies to the Frank Wing Center since that’s where all suspects arrested in Bexar County are booked, regardless of which police department does the cuffing. It’s where suspects are processed, finger-printed, tested for DWI, brought before a magistrate, evaluated for personal recognizance bonds, and held while they wait for the next bus to the Bexar County Jail.
Up until last Thursday, the City of San Antonio carried the brunt of the facility’s burden. The city, and its taxpayers by proxy, paid for it, while the city’s municipal court judges carried the magistrate case loads. At the last city-council meeting, that changed with the unanimous approval of an interlocal agreement by which Bexar County picked up roughly half the cost, or about $1.2 million each year.
If you weren’t there, then you missed Councilman Roland Gutierrez hammer Judge Bull, who runs the center, before agreeing to sign the contract. Gutierrez all but pounded his fist as he made a big show of demanding that the county pick up more responsibility.
“You ever hear of pandering?” one Bexar County Court employee responded when we asked about Gutierrez’s performance. If Gutierrez really thought the county wasn’t ready to take over a share of the operation, then he hadn’t done his research. By Monday, the county had relocated their jail court from a trailer outside the county jail to Room 1006 at the Frank Wing Center.
It was empty when I swung past it, but I’m told that it’s operating from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Incidentally, the new agreement also allows detainees to be held there for 18 hours instead of 12.)
Frank Wing’s financial burden is about to shift even more. Last week Alamo-area police chiefs were told now it’s their turn. They were introduced to another interlocal agreement, one that will cost their suburban cities $100 each time they arrest someone.
Let’s look at Olmos Park, for example. According to OPPD Chief Louis Alcoser, they make between 10 and 15 arrests per month in that 2,400-person city, which translates to as much as $15,000 per year. How does his council feel about that?
“They don’t know yet,” Alcoser says. “I think all the `police` departments are going to be scrambling to meet with their councilmembers and city attorneys to review this.”
If they don’t like it, they can build their own detention-magistration center.
Now, Susan, SAPD has told us that after talking to you they’ve decided not to implement the cite-and-summons option. But for smaller cities, this might make a nice consolation gift. Imagine you’re mayor of a suburban city; would you rather spend $100 on, say, infrastructure, or would you rather spend it to lock up a minor offender in a squalid detention center for up to 18 hours?
I know you’ll do the right thing. Call me when you get a chance.
Dave Maass •