If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
“YOU HAVE TO BE INNOVATIVE TO REMAIN RELEVANT”
COUNTY JAIL RE-OPENING, NEW TRAINING, COMMUNITY POLICING VITAL TO AGENCY, SHERIFF SAYS
“You know, it all comes down to service with respect.”
Frio County Sheriff Mike Morse comes across to his audience as stern yet passionate about his community.
Since taking office in 2021, Morse has not shied away from a fight to make sure his department is taken care of financially and emotionally.
In his 2020 bid for sheriff, Morse looked to correct a number of flaws in the county’s law enforcement, including a sheriff’s department in a state of what he described as having no integrity, and a non-functional jail.
“We took a budget from the previous administration that had a non-operational jail with no funding for food, uniforms and a small staff and we used that budget in a more efficient way,” the sheriff said.
For eleven years, after the departure of the GEO group, who terminated its jail lease contract with the county, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) closed the facility several times after repeated failed jail inspections.
A month after taking office, the sheriff made no promise on a timeline to reopen the facility but ensured it would soon be operational.
Within nine months of being elected as the county’s top law enforcement official, Morse and his command staff had the jail re-opened.
“We got things done,” he said. “It has a lot to do with networking. You know there are over fifty years of experience between this command staff.”
“We delivered,” Frio County Chief Deputy Peter Salinas said in an interview Friday morning. “The sheriff ran his campaign on the foundation of bringing honest policing and trust back into this department, and that he would reopen the jail.”
The chief deputy is credited with having worked to secure grants to fund the jail’s re-opening, support deputy salaries and purchase new equipment. He said last week that he is unsure how much longer the department can sustain itself.
Records filed at the county courthouse show that between 2017 and 2020, commissioners pumped nearly two million dollars into improvements to the antiquated infrastructure of the detention facility.
Salinas said that in a span of ten months, the plumbing, HVAC system, fire sprinklers, intercom and phone system, a digital law library and a total kitchen upgrade were installed or repaired in order to meet the standards set out by the TCJS.
The sheriff’s jail staff were also required to design a recreation yard for inmates.
Morse said repairing the facility was no easy feat, and that he encountered some resistance from commissioners’ court when it came to funding.
“The previous sheriff did not attend to his business, so the money budgeted for jail repairs was given to another department and we had to fight for it,” the sheriff said.
Morse said Salinas did just that, and a month after opening the jail with 48 beds, the county was awarded a $1.2 million Operation Lone Star (OLS) grant that relieved a financial burden on taxpayers and opened up the facility.
The sheriff attributes the jail reopening to a networking approach with the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), area sheriffs and TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood. Morse said the department staff underwent two mock walk-throughs, at their request, and Wood visited the facility two times to provide feedback.
“This is a huge milestone for the county,” Morse said. “We are establishing honesty and accountability within the county. I am proud of all my staff. They really stepped up to the plate, and there is a sense of pride now.”
Salinas presented the grant to commissioners on Monday, January 9, 2022, noting that the funding had stipulations on expenditures and disbursement.
“About the grant,” the sheriff said, “administratively, he [Salinas] is better than anyone in South Texas. You have to be innovative to remain relevant.”
The chief deputy said the grant application was made with a view to further facility upgrades.
According to Salinas, the program is designed to enhance interagency border security operations and support OLS, including “the facilitation of directed actions to deter and interdict criminal activity and detain non–citizen inmates.”
“They are referring to the spike in smuggling,” the chief deputy said. “We did not set that condition of funding. It came straight from the governor.”
Salinas said the grant must be used to supplement existing funds and not replace funds that have been earmarked for the same purpose. The award can, however, bring part-time jailers to a temporary full-time status.
“This will not replace our budget but hopefully support our budget,” the chief deputy said.
The million-dollar grant requires no match from the county and must be spent by August 31.
Salinas’ grant proposal included $600,000 for additional staff, $500,000 for jail renovations and $58,695 for law enforcement equipment.
Commissioners quizzed Salinas on future funding of the jailer positions once grant monies are no longer available.
According to the chief deputy, the grant will fund salaries until halfway through the year’s budget.
“We would then ask to continue to fund those positions and ask for roughly fifty percent of the funding from the county,” Salinas said. “Then after that, it would be up to commissioners to keep those additional positions.”
Salinas said the county is already starting to see a saving for taxpayers, as Frio County inmates are being transferred back to Pearsall and housed at the local facility.
The jail is run by Lt. Jimmy Allen, who has sought additional resources to provide substance abuse classes and job training for inmates.
“We want to try and reintegrate inmates into society,” the chief deputy said. “We do not want them returning to a life of crime.”
Morse said that beside the infinite amount of work put into sustaining the jail and meeting top-notch compliance standards set forth by the TCJS, his department makes it a priority to remain vigilant and “provide service with respect.”
Implementing a subsidy program for Frio County landowners who have sustained damage to their property was a priority for Morse. Complaints have been lodged in the county regarding the amount of expense incurred when immigrant or drug traffic smugglers are chased by law enforcement officers and crash into ranchers’ fences or cut through private property in their evasion maneuvers.
“The key is, it has to be a Frio County-initiated pursuit,” the sheriff said. “A lot of pursuits are not initiated by us, but usually by state troopers. The border crisis has gotten into the core of our responsibilities and takes up so much of the deputies’ time.”
Since the start of the program, Salinas said the department has approved six applications.
After a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde last year, the chief deputy worked to find another grant that would help pay for rifle-rated ballistic armor and entry tools.
“Across the board, every deputy has the same handgun,” the sheriff said. “We were able to do that with asset forfeiture funds.”
Morse and Salinas both take pride in their efforts to build community rapport. Since taking office, the sheriff and his staff are active in Kids Fish, Red Ribbon Week, National Night Out and supporting all the communities in the county.
“We want the communities to know we are good guys,” Salinas said. “The youths are the focus.”
Sheriff Morse maintains that his command staff have the collective experience in law enforcement to be qualified in offering in-house specialty training, another cost-efficient measure for the county. Beginning in October, the department will host two training sessions per year in compliance with House Bill 3 regarding active-shooter scenarios.
“The biggest thing with rural counties is recruiting and retaining deputies,” Morse said. “We have to be able to compete to keep the people we have. Loyalty will not put food on the table. Frio County is going to have to pay for public safety.”