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DPS Border Surge Saps Officers from Rest of Texas

DPS Col. Steve McCraw speaks to the press after his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee July 19, 2016. (Bob Daemmrich)

The Texas Department of Public Safety is making security and staffing improvements on the state’s border with Mexico. But other parts of Texas will continue to feel a public-safety void while the agency continues pouring resources near the Rio Grande, its director said on Tuesday.

The testimony from Col. Steve McCraw came during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on how the state’s police force is spending its share of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security in 2015.

McCraw said the agency was getting closer to its goal of hiring 250 troopers for permanent placement on the border, mainly in Starr and Hidalgo counties. But because the agency cannot place rookie agents on the border alone for six months, and because it has to make up for statewide attrition, it will continue rotating officers from across the state for temporary stints in the area.

“Are any of our other areas being left without adequate protection?” State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, asked McCraw.

“Yes ma’am. There is an impact,” he said. “We’re mindful of that, of course. But we’ve been provided some very direct guidance in terms of prioritization” by lawmakers.

There are more than 200 new troopers on the border now, McCraw said. And with graduating classes coming later this year, the 250 goal will be met by December. But the rotations that sap resources from other regions will continue for months, he said.

“When they can operate by themselves to the point when they don’t need the field training officer, [that] will take time depending on which school graduates,” he said.

Giddings asked the director how he would describe the agency’s greatest accomplishments to date, and what she could tell people in Dallas they should feel good about.

McCraw said the border surge has helped seal off one of the biggest smuggling corridors on the border, which affects the rest of Texas and beyond.

“The two counties that represent the most significant threat to this nation as it relates to organized crime and transnational crime, Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley and Hidalgo County, we dramatically increased the detection coverage [and] the interdiction capacity," he said. "And it has had an impact on that area. It’s a different game right now."

After the hearing, Giddings said she understands the size of Texas and scope of border security puts McCraw in a tough position. But she said she wasn’t satisfied with his response because it’s not something her constituents can measure.

“The citizens in Dallas, when we talk about north of $800 million going to the border and them having less protection in the meantime, it takes a little bit of selling for them to understand why you would vote for that,” she said. “I think Col. McCraw has attempted to do a good job, but I think it’s up to us as legislators to make sure we are spending our limited resources in the right place.”

Lawmakers did praise McCraw’s unveiling of a work in progress to measure the effectiveness of the border operation. During debate on the legislation in 2015, some lawmakers, specifically Democrats, were critical of what they said was the agency’s inability to define progress.

McCraw said he asked former state auditor John Keel for guidance to develop a plan, which he said must be approved by lawmakers. But he said it’s a change from merely tallying arrests and seizures and using those figures as a measuring stick.

“We’re making it more difficult on ourselves than it has been in the past,” McCraw told reporters after the hearing. “Usually the rule is you just report seizure numbers and as long as the seizure number comes up, arrests go up, you ask for more money and you claim success. What we’re saying here is we’re not claiming success until you move up to the next level.”

The plan includes, in part, taking border crime data and compiling it in a way that reflects what the agency has done on the ground, air and water, what personnel it has used, and what decreases in crime have been accomplished. It also measures security in four levels: unsecured, minimal control, operational control and substantial control. The House and Senate Joint Committee on Border Security must approve the measuring guidelines

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who has been a vocal critic of the border allotment, thanked McCraw for listening to lawmakers and trying to provide answers.

“I think you’ve been listening to us for a while here asking about the metrics,” she said. “This is a huge step in the right direction.”

- Julián Aguilar, Texas Tribune. This story originally appeared here.