The Brownsville police force falls below the national average, with roughly one less officer for every 1,000 inhabitants as compared to city forces nationwide.
Many Rio Grande Valley city police forces fell below the national average – a statistic that an FBI spokesman said is not meant to be a recommendation.
Law enforcement officials offered varying perspectives on the numbers, some citing tight staff numbers and others saying the force size comfortably fits the city’s needs.
Most said the average is just that – an average meant to offer a general mode of comparison.
A look at the size of police agencies for 13 Valley cities and towns indicates that the forces serving smaller populations tend to come close or exceed the national average as compared to the larger metropolitan areas of Brownsville, Harlingen, San Benito and McAllen.
The biggest city in the Valley, Brownsville has one of the lowest officer to civilian ratio of police forces in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation compiled data in 2009 of almost 15,000 city and county agencies and concluded that nationwide, police forces consisted of 2.4 officers per 1,000 habitants of the population the agency serves.
Rio Grande Valley police force numbers vary widely, particularly in accordance with population, according to the 2009 FBI study.
With 240 sworn officers serving an estimated 175,000 people, the Brownsville police force has a ratio of 1.4 officers per 1,000 people in the city.
Serving a much smaller population, the South Padre Island Police Department far exceeds the national average relative to its size, with almost 10 officers for every 1,000 in the population.
The town of 2,884 has 28 full-time sworn officers, but the Island often gets a large population spike during tourist season and even year round, generating a skewed number for the Island and other tourist areas, the SPI police chief said.
In contrast, Alamo has 26 sworn officers serving a population of almost 17,000, about eight times the size of South Padre Island, according to the 2009 data.
McAllen, slightly smaller in population than Brownsville, came somewhat close to the national average with 2 officers for every 1,000 residents. In 2009, the city of almost 133,000 was served by 261 sworn officers.
The Harlingen Police Department also reports close to 2 officers per 1,000 residents with 129 sworn officers in a population of almost 70,000.
Other Valley agency ratio’s of officers per 1,000 habitants according to the FBI’s 2009 data include: Edinburg with 1.6, La Feria, 1.8, Los Fresnos, 2.5, Port Isabel, 3.3, Rancho Viejo, 4.3, San Benito, 1.7 and Weslaco, 2.
Force size a comfortable fit?
Despite falling below the national average, Brownsville Interim Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez said the number of sworn officers meets the city’s needs.
The Brownsville police force ratio comes closer to the average for cities of between 100,000 and 250,000, which is 1.8 officers per 1,000 in the population.
"There is a misconception and unfounded belief that you have to have a certain amount of officers because there’s an average," Rodriguez said.
One of the challenges in asking for more full-time officers, he said, is finding qualified people to take the position. Often, the department is working under the level of authorized sworn officers because of retirements and other vacancies.
"You can request more positions, but then you have to fill them. They’re not slots that are easy to fill," Rodriguez said. "You can test 150 people and might get only a handful of qualified applicants. It’s very demanding.
"So how do you justify requesting more personnel?"
He said the department is instead working to increase internal efficiency to enable existing officers to quickly respond to all calls.
Yet other officials say budget constraints stretch thin the staff of sworn officers serving the area.
Port Isabel exceeds the national average with roughly 3 sworn officers per 1,000, but Police Chief Gualberto "Wally" Gonzalez said a steady influx of tourists to the beachfront town significantly lowers the ratio.
"On any given day we can have 20 to 30,000 people come in on weekends and start some fights," Gonzalez said, noting then that the 15 sworn officers are handling a much larger caseload.
During peak tourist season, particularly in March, the officers work 12-hour shifts, up from the regular eight-hour shift. Gonzalez said he often fills in to supervise shifts during busy times.
"Around Spring Break, we go into 12 hour shifts so we can utilize our manpower but we get fatigued so we have to be careful," he said.
Lacking funds to add manpower, Gonzalez said the department relies on government grants to pay for training and equipment available to police forces in bigger cities.
South Padre Island Police Chief Randy Smith said the force often uses help of nearby agencies during peak tourist times. He said the seeming high ratio of the 28 sworn officers serving a population of about 3,000 is misleading because of the Winter Texans and other vacationers not counted in census data.
"There may be slow times where we then have a few extra officers, but a lot of times of year we don’t have enough," Smith said.
He said several years ago the city looked into adding more officers, but could not meet the costs in the budget.
"I think we are comfortable with the number. We have to keep being vigilant in the field and handling our calls quickly," he said.
Working toward efficiency
With a police force that often functions slightly under its authorized capacity, Rodriguez said the department is developing several projects to better utilize the manpower available.
One such project is moving toward a system where some police reports can be filed electronically – reports such as those for minor calls like graffiti or vandalism made for documentation purposes only.
"To make simple reports take officers’ time and take officers from more serious calls," Rodriguez said.
City residents that just need to make a police report for insurance or a similar purpose would be able to do so online, saving the time of a patrol officer, Rodriguez said.
He said the department is also working to streamline its communications regarding 911 calls and radio dispatches.
Regarding the officer to civilian ratio for Brownsville, Rodriguez cited declining rates for violent crime in the city.
"Do you feel safe driving down the street?" he said. "You have to ask yourself how do you feel day in and day out walking down the street."