By Brian M. Rosenthal
The deployment of additional state police and Texas National Guard troops to the southern border last June has reduced illegal border crossings but cost more than $100 million and compromised the Department of Public Safety's ability to combat crimes elsewhere, according to an internal DPS assessment prepared for Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers.
"The Department of Public Safety is understaffed throughout the state, and a sustained deployment of personnel to the border region reduces the patrol and investigative capacity in other areas of the state that are also impacted by transnational crime," according to the report, which was distributed late last month on the condition that it not be publicly released.
The 68-page assessment, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, largely cast the border surge ordered by state leaders last summer as a success, citing the reductions in illegal border crossings and cartel activity in the operation zone.
The report also said that millions spent to bring state police officers and guardsmen to the border and give them time to develop relationships with local law enforcement helped push the cost of Operation Strong Safety II beyond $100 million.
"The permanent assignment of a sufficient number of troopers, agents and Texas Rangers to the border region is more effective and efficient than short-term deployments from around the state," the report found.
The current deployment, which began last June in response to a spike of unaccompanied children crossing the border that quickly subsided, has now stretched to eight months. The guardsmen have been on the border to support the mission for six months, drawing increasing criticism from some state lawmakers and prompting a search for a long-term solution.
More DPS officers, gear
Among other recommendations, the report said the state should immediately fund 320 more patrol vehicles for the operation and eventually replace the deployed guardsmen with technology and 500 Department of Public Safety officers -- a suggestion that mirrors the plan Abbott announced last week.
Abbott has named border security as an emergency item, allowing bills related to it to be passed in the first 60 days of the legislative session. Both the state House and Senate have also prioritized the issue, proposing budgets with unprecedented levels of spending on border security.
By this summer, the state will have spent nearly $1 billion on border enforcement since 2008, nearly half of that in the two-year budget period that ends Aug. 31.
A key question is how long the guardsmen should stay on the border. Abbott has called for them to remain until his proposed 500 extra officers arrive. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also supports a continued deployment, but state House Speaker Joe Straus is more skeptical.
The internal report did not directly mention the issue but said the guardsmen should be replaced "as resources become available."
Overall, the document mostly provided a more detailed version of what Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and Texas National Guard Adjutant General John Nichols have said at a series of committee hearings during the early part of this session, including at a Monday meeting in which several state senators called for the operation to have more defined goals.
While the report gave more detail than has been publicly released about the claim often made by Patrick and other state leaders that the deployment has reduced crime, it focused on illegal crossings and cartel activity in the operation zone, providing less detail about local crimes and leaving open the possibility that criminals have simply shifted their efforts elsewhere.
In addition to the steep reduction in crossings since the mission began, which some experts have attributed to other factors, the report said that encounters with gang members in the operation area have dropped by 38 percent, pursuits in Hidalgo and Starr counties have dipped by 29 percent and documented human stash homes have plummeted by two-thirds.
Documented drug stash houses have slightly increased, said the assessment, which found that 150 tons of illegal drugs have been seized as part of the operation.
The report also said the chiefs of the Mission and McAllen police departments have credited the deployment with decreased local crime.
The mission has also led to the arrest of several high-profile cartel leaders, according to the assessment.
In its detailed cost breakdown, the report found that the Department of Public Safety has spent about $22 million on salaries, $21 million on overtime payments, $5 million on vehicle fuel and maintenance, $2.5 million on flight costs and $7 million on "travel," presumably for officers to get to and from the operation.
Among other costs, the Texas Military Department has spent $16 million on wages, $550,000 on food for undocumented immigrants, $181,000 on fuel, $78,000 on building rent and $16 million on "operating expenses."
(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle