McMullen County Sheriff Emmett Shelton, right, emphasized that the county’s high incarceration rate is due to its strong enforcement of traffic laws. On left is area prosecutor Jon West.
By BEN TINSLEY
TILDEN, TX. — McMullen County’s extremely high May incarceration rate–the second highest in the state–is described as a fairly regular occurrence. Authorities say it is largely attributable to the smaller size of the county combined with the sheriff department’s extremely vigorous approach to traffic law enforcement.
“The traffic we have in McMullen County is the No. 1 threat to our public safety,” explained McMullen County Sheriff Emmett Shelton. “That is where we focus our priorities–on that traffic. As such, there are a lot of people who come into the county with warrants or expired licenses.”
In an issued statement, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards designated McMullen County’s incarceration rate of 16.18 in May. It is second only to Kenedy County’s 20.11 rate–although, again, experts attribute those high percentages to the smaller populations of those counties. As of the 2010 census, McMullen County’s population was 707–making it the fifth-least populous county in Texas. Kenedy County’s was 416, which made it “more miles than people” with the third-least populous county in Texas and fourth-least in the U.S.
Conversely, No. 3 on the “highest incarceration list” was Refugio County with a 5.35 rate and a population of 7,383.
Shelton said his department’s main focus is saving lives and proactively enforcing traffic laws along State Highway 72. This can mean many more traffic stops than actual tickets or arrests, but word gets around amongst motorists that there is a large law presence in that county, and as a result more people tend to stay alive, he said.
“In 2012, despite our efforts, we experienced an unacceptable number of fatalities–13,” the sheriff said. “That was completely unacceptable.”
As a result, the McMullen County Sheriff’s Department stepped up its efforts, put more deputies on the ground and accomplished a zero fatality rate in 2013, he said.
This didn’t take place in a vacuum. McMullen County Sheriff’s Department staff greatly increased between 2012 and 2013. Altogether, the department stopped (not necessarily ticketed) 2,700 vehicles in 2012. This number skyrocketed to 7,000 stops in 2013.
Unfortunately, because of three traffic fatalities earlier in 2014, that “zero” number of fatalities will not be accomplished at the end of 2014, the McMullen County sheriff lamented.
Sheriff Shelton has placed job education at an all-time high for members of his department, which helps members of his staff stay on the cutting edge when it comes to traffic law enforcement.
For a county with no dispatchers and no actual jail, the 18-deputy department tends to stay busy policing traffic.
In neighboring Live Oak County, Sheriff Larry Busby agreed that the huge spike in area traffic problems–literally thousands of additional vehicles driving through the area–can directly be traced to the approach of Eagle Ford Shale.
“With Eagle Ford Shale came major traffic problems for everyone but especially McMullen County,” Busby said. “We have always dispatched for McMullen County, but we could go months without hearing from anyone there. Now, they average five prisoners a day. They run about eight to 10 percent of our usual jail population of 64.”
The increase in traffic in McMullen led to Live Oak County getting an additional dispatcher since they do the dispatching for that county, Busby said.
“Fortunately, our commissioners really understood our problem,” Busby said. “As part of jailing for McMullen County, when they arrest someone and bring them over here, we book them just like we book our prisoners. It’s not like a contract housing service where we simply provided a roof over their heads. They are not counted as overflow. We do the actual booking. So in a way, we’re basically both a Live Oak and McMullen County Jail.”
Shelton said his county’s commissioners court also was understanding of the traffic problem. The 2012 sheriff’s department budget allotted for five deputy positions including the chief deputy, a task force position, a part-time investigator, an administrative assistant and two part-time deputies. Most of the law enforcement equipment was produced through grants or seizure funds–all prior to the Eagle Ford boom.
After the boom, the commissioners approved eight patrol deputies, two investigators, a task force position, one administrative assistant, one clerk and four part-time deputies as well as active deputy, Shelton said.
And there was more training for McMullen County deputies as well–to keep up with the technology and law enforcement procedures.
The 2,700 traffic stops were almost four times more than the previous year and translated to 86 felony cases filed and 90 plus misdemeanor cases (unfortunately also 13 fatalities).
In 2013, McMullen County commissioners increased the number to two officers on duty 24-7.
The full-time investigator filed 20 to 30 misdemeanor cases per month and four to six felony cases, Shelton said. The increase in misdemeanor cases was the result of warrant services. The increase in felonies was largely due to oil theft.
Ben Tinsley is a reporter for The Progress newspaper in Three Rivers. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 361-786-3022. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BenTinsley, Google at http://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley or on Facebook athttp://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12.