EDINBURG — Most of the Rio Grande Valley law enforcement agencies were present Thursday during an active shooter demonstration and roundtable hosted by Sen. John Cornyn, who has been spreading the word about new funding available for training.
The new Protecting Our Lives by Initiating COPS Expansion or Police Act amends the 1968 Safe Streets Act and makes funding more readily available for active shooter training. A demonstration of this training was showcased Thursday afternoon in the Crawford Elementary School cafeteria.
“This really begins with this phenomenon that we are seeing more and more around the country — whether it’s San Bernardino or Orlando or what we saw happen in Dallas, where they were targeting law enforcement officers,” Cornyn said. “What this legislation is designed to provide is that standard active shooter training is available to all law enforcement.”
The bill was sponsored by Cornyn and U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and had bi-partisan support. It was signed into law on July 22. The bill does not provide additional spending, but simply expands the COPS program to cover active shooter training.
Cornyn said the bill was inspired by law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley and the training they receive through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALEERT. More than a dozen police chiefs and local sheriffs attended the event, which included a roundtable discussion.
“The federal government spends $2 billion dollars a year in grants for state and local law enforcement and what we’ve learned is that the priorities, as far as the grant funding, are not necessarily your priorities,” Cornyn said. “We are looking at the COPS grants and revving those up by making active shooter training more readily available, but that’s just the beginning. We are glad to hear from you what the most urgent priorities are in your office.”
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra moderated the half-hour roundtable where most police chiefs and sheriffs expressed gratitude for the new bill but voiced concerns about a lack of funding to hire additional officers and deputies.
“We thank you for your efforts, and we ask that you look at us being the frontline,” said Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez. “Hopefully, through these grants and through your work and with this police act and the others to come, it will help us with our problems on the border.”
Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio echoed Dominguez’s concerns, but was more specific about his concerns with federal grants such as Stone Garden, which pays his deputies overtime when assisting Border Patrol on a case or investigation.
“My concern is when you have someone who is working eight hours a day and because he needs the money he opts to work another three or four hours a day, and at the end of the week he ends up working 60 hours,” Lucio said. “My concern is he’s not going to make the right decision because he’s exhausted; he’s not thinking as clearly as he should.”
Lucio said he would like grant money to be channeled somehow to allow his and other departments to hire additional officers to relieve the officers they currently have that are sometimes being overworked.
In Brooks County, Sheriff Benny Martinez highlighted a sometimes overlooked issue prominent in the Rio Grande Valley, migrant deaths. He said he and his seven deputies are constantly trying to keep up with the number of 9-1-1 calls from migrants in distress after they are injured or abandoned trying to circumvent the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint.
“We are picking up a lot of dead bodies here in Brooks County. We just picked up 11 last month,” Martinez said. “Thanks to Border Patrol and their efforts, we’ve had about 600 rescues, but this happens on a daily basis.”
Martinez also highlighted the need for more prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Cornyn said earlier this week he and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, visited Conroe and Maxwell and heard very similar things from law enforcement officials about being understaffed or underfunded.
“I think it’s a pretty common theme. Everybody is operating a little bit short changed,” Cornyn said. “The unique thing about the Valley though is, because of the proximity to the border with so many federal law enforcement officials here, this is uniquely an opportunity where you can see that cross jurisdictional benefit because everyone is going to come running to help if something like this were to happen, no matter if it’s a school district or county.”