La Salle County Sheriff begins second term...
Rodriguez looks to lessons from past four years
n preparedness for the future
By Marc Robertson
The retired Texas Highway Patrol corporal aimed at leading the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office into a time of growth and change when he was elected to the top law enforcement job in 2012.
He began serving his constituents at the peak of the Eagle Ford Shale energy industry’s economic boom and has been re-elected to serve them another four years.
At the same time as he worked to stay ahead of increasing demands for law enforcement in La Salle County, Sheriff Miguel Rodriguez was seeing his community transformed and worked with a team of administrators to meet the challenges that the future would hold.
Those challenges would strike the community and its government from all sides.
“We had to deal with a huge increase in the number of traffic accidents on the highway and on other roads when I took office,” the sheriff said a week after being sworn into office for his second elected term this month. “We were still dealing with a lot of local issues, like drug-related crime, but then we had new issues that this county had never seen before. It wasn’t all good news.”
Rodriguez ran unopposed for re-election in the Democratic Party primaries in March 2016 and faced a write-in candidate on the ballot in the November general election. He prevailed in large part, he says, because his department had developed a close rapport with La Salle County’s residents and had succeeded in meeting the demands of a faster-moving economy and population shifts brought on by the energy industry.
“The days when a sheriff could employ just a couple of deputies in that old-fashioned small-town way of life were history,” the sheriff said. “The people of La Salle County want to keep the small-town way of life, which is a positive thing, and we have to protect that while the world around us is changing. Families need to know that we are patrolling their streets to keep them safe, and kids need to know that we will make sure they are safe on their way to school.”
During Rodriguez’ first four years as La Salle County sheriff, the local population grew to exceed 6,000 in Cotulla alone; City Hall estimates at the peak of the oil boom indicated that as many as ten thousand workers could be found in the city on any given weekday. La Salle County welcomed the economic boost; multiple family members were finding work, contributing to their household income; oil revenues and elevated property values were feeding the county and city with funds that would help pave streets, improve utilities and provide for better law enforcement, emergency response and local government services. When Rodriguez took office, Cotulla city councilors had approved establishing a law enforcement partnership with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office for a city police department at a rate of $375,000 per year. The Cotulla Patrol Division is supervised by a sheriff’s sergeant and maintains a law enforcement presence for rapid response within city limits where none had been previously guaranteed.
"We had new issues that
It wasn't all good news"
"We had to
at the same time as we
were dealing with the changes"
“It was as if the county changed overnight,” the sheriff said. “We had new hotels and businesses being built along the interstate, which meant that we had to provide extra manpower to deal with all the new traffic. On the highway, we were seeing many more accidents. Out in the field, there was the constant danger of an industrial accident that would occupy all of our forces. We had to plan ahead at the same time as we were dealing with the changes.”
The sheriff’s office grew to include more than two dozen law enforcement officers, plus the county’s emergency dispatch and a new crew of certified correctional officers to staff the La Salle County Jail, which reopened during Rodriguez’ first term. At the same time, La Salle County assumed control of the Regional Detention Center at Encinal, a facility that houses federal detainees from the US Marshals Service. In order to earn sufficient revenues to pay for its construction costs and daily operating expenses, the detention center must hold a break-even minimum of 300 inmates and earn $20,000 per day for the county. As chief law enforcement officer for the county, the sheriff took control of the facility and oversaw the hiring of all its jailers and support staff. He also had to work closely with county commissioners to ensure that funds were made available for urgent repairs to the ten-year-old detention center whose fixtures and fittings had deteriorated.
“When we knew what we were going to be dealing with, we were able to set a plan in motion to get the job done, and I’m very proud of the administrators and staff who have kept both of these detention facilities in top running condition,” the sheriff said. “Each one of these buildings needs constant maintenance and has to pass inspection by state and federal authorities. You can’t open a detention center that isn’t fully equipped or doesn’t meet standards. You can’t allow yourself to slip. Not once.”
An industrial accident at a remote site in eastern La Salle County helped increase public awareness of the need for a fully equipped county fire and rescue service and served to justify the county’s expenditure in creating the La Salle Fire & Rescue, which now operates out of a new station on the east side of Cotulla and will soon open a substation in Encinal. As the county developed its emergency response services, the sheriff’s office kept the pace with officer training and equipment upgrades.
“You don’t train all your guys just once and send them out,” the sheriff said of the need to stay ahead of the curve in emergency response. “You have to keep up with changes in the industry and you have to know what’s going on out there. We have to work very closely with the Fire & Rescue to make sure we are all working on the same page and that we are prepared to deal with any incident.”
La Salle County law enforcement officers routinely attend training seminars and industry update workshops with the county’s firefighters and medics. Sheriff Rodriguez said he believes a close working relationship between departments is critical.
“You’re not just going out there to block the road or direct traffic, if there is an emergency,” the sheriff said. “You’re going there to make sure anyone that needs to be evacuated is safe and that the firefighters can do their job. When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency.”
An incident on IH-35 during the summer of 2015, in which a gunman threatened officers and other motorists for more than ten hours before he was shot by local deputies, brought attention to the need for a law enforcement department that could respond to simultaneous events.
“By the time we had the standoff on the highway, we were already fully staffed, and that emergency showed we were ready to tackle something that was totally new to La Salle County,” the sheriff said.
"When it comes down to it, this is a matter of life and death in an emergency"
"Protecting the residents, ready to respond to emergencies, prepared to handle disasters"
“These things that have happened in the past few years have really been a wake-up call to everyone, that times have changed,” the sheriff said. “We were able to deal with these incidents because we were ready. We had the manpower, the training and the equipment.”
The sheriff looks ahead to his second term with hopes that the regional economy will stabilize, that employment levels will rise, that developers will continue looking to La Salle County for their business sites, and that traffic flow will be safer. Each factor, he believes, will affect the lives of La Salle County’s residents.
“The most important issue for us as a law enforcement department is the safety of the people of our communities,” the sheriff said. “That means protecting families in their homes, children going to school, businesses operating without fear of crime.
“Where do we go from here? We will continue to keep a fully staffed law enforcement agency that is ready to grow,” the sheriff said. “We will continue to serve the community by protecting the residents, being ready to respond to emergencies, being prepared to handle disasters, and keeping our manpower trained.
“We maintain a very close working relationship with the school district and with the agencies that take care of the children’s special needs, handle cases of abuse and neglect, and offer shelter to the needy,” the sheriff added. “We work together with the DPS, the US Border Patrol, the FBI and the US Marshals, and we are in touch with every other law enforcement agency in the region. I believe that when we work together for the betterment of all the people, we will be ready to face whatever the future holds.”