By Phillip Williams
Upshur County Sheriff Larry Webb gave a comprehensive overview of his office’s work, and improvements he has made to it, at a public meeting of East Texans for Liberty outside Gilmer Monday night.
About 30 attended the event at the rural Barbwire Halo Cowboy Church.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to be y’all’s sheriff,” said Webb, adding “my door has always been open” to the public during his five years in office and that part of his office’s mission is to “preserve the constitutional rights” of citizens. Another part, he said, is reducing crime and the fear of it.
He noted the educational activities he has instituted for the public, such as the citizens’ police academy (which was not held the last two years due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but will resume), and church safety seminars. He also said he now has a training room for deputies with the “latest, greatest technology” and is building a rural firing range at which his office will conduct handgun classes.
In addition, Webb presented statistics concerning the types of cases his office handles, warning that “some of these things are gonna shock you a little bit” although “generally speaking,” Upshur is “not a violent county.”
The county does, however, have thefts and illicit drugs, and drug users steal in order to purchase their narcotics, he observed.
“One way to take care of” the “war on drugs” is to have a sheriff, justices of the peace, other judges and citizens “on board” with combatting them, he noted, praising County Judge Todd Tefeller, 115th District Judge Dean Fowler and the county commissioners court for their performances.
Noting his office handles all law enforcement-related calls in the county (except those made to the Gilmer Police Department between 8 a.m. and midnight), Webb said 25,225 calls for service were received in 2021 in a county of only about 40,000 population.
The top 10 categories of calls, in this order he listed, included medical, animal (such as “somebody’s cows got out” or other livestock did), information needed, suspicious activity, welfare checks, warrant services, “incident calls,” reckless drivers, disturbances and thefts.
Webb also addressed his office’s staffing, noting his patrol division has only 3-4 deputies on duty per shift to cover the county’s 593 square miles. While his office gets help from constables and the Texas Department of Public Safety, having few deputies to cover such a wide area is “where the citizens come in,” the sheriff said.
In 2021, patrol deputies received 11,777 calls for service, made 1,427 traffic stops, 257 arrests for various offenses,and issued 1,171 written or verbal citations, he noted.
Webb noted his office also has a four-member Criminal Investigation Division of plain-clothes detectives who cleared 741 of their 881 cases last year and filed 395 with District Attorney Billy Byrd’s office for criminal processing. (The 741 cleared cases either went to Byrd’s office or the complainant didn’t want to pursue charges further, the sheriff noted).
The sheriff praised county commissioners for giving his personnel a major pay raise last year. Starting pay for deputies rose from $34,000 up to $40,000, he noted.
Webb also discussed the operation of the 226-bed county jail, which has a separate budget from his office, saying it averages about 130-140 inmates daily. Of these, about 52 are inmates from other counties, which the county is paid for housing, he said.
The jail, which passed an unannnounced state inspection a few months ago, has 23 jailers (counting a supervisor) who works 12-hour shifts of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., or vice versa, Webb noted.
One major problem in the jail he addressed is that it must house, for prolonged periods, prisoners with mental issues because there is no room for them in state mental hospitals.
When a court has ruled that an inmate is to be sent away for restoration of his mental competency to stand trial, or to determine competency, “that can take over 700 days,” Webb said.
The state has about 2,500 beds for mental patients, but “can’t get the staff to open up these places.” In fact, a new wing is being added at Rusk State Hospital, he noted, but it can’t get the needed workers.
If an inmate is found insane, Webb added, criminal charges against him are dismissed and law requires the sheriff can only jail him for 14 days before either sending him to an institution or releasing him. With no room in the institutions, Webb said, that leaves him in a “catch-22” as “What am I supposed to do?”
He said he has talked to State Rep. Cole Hefner and advised him “We’ve got to do something about this” since “the county jails have become a mental holding facility.”