Alpine mayor says city police can use county jail after all

ALPINE — For months, officials in Alpine and at the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office have been at odds over how and when Alpine police can use its jail. But Alpine City Attorney Rod Ponton has resolved those issues with Sheriff Ronny Dodson, and Alpine police can once again use the Brewster County Jail “effective immediately,” Alpine Mayor Andy Ramos said Tuesday in a news release.

The contours of this dispute — which The Big Bend Sentinel reported on last week — are convoluted. Earlier this year, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office reportedly stopped allowing the Alpine Police Department to book defendants in the county jail until those defendants had been through the magistration process, which is where officials brief defendants on their rights and charges and set their bail. According to Ponton, BCSO adopted this policy because Sheriff Dodson and other officials were concerned Alpine police were arresting people without cause.

Some residents view the situation as politics, in large part because bodycam footage from Alpine police officer Will Drawe, who also happens to be running as a write-in sheriff’s candidate against Dodson, was publicized on social media in an election-season offshoot to this dispute. But the basic disagreement over jail admittance began as early as March — long before Drawe even entered the race.

At a city council meeting last week, Alpine city officials like City Manager Erik Zimmer and Councilmember Rick Stephens said the sheriff’s office was breaking a longstanding oral agreement with Alpine, under which Alpine gave the county land to build a jail on the condition that city police could book suspects there free-of-charge. Unlike the Marfa Police Department, Alpine PD reportedly has no holding cells of its own, where it could theoretically book a handful of suspects prior to magistration.

At that same city council meeting, local District Attorney Sandy Wilson said those two factors — the lack of holding cells at APD, plus BCSO’s unwillingness to immediately book city suspects at the jail — were jeopardizing safety in Alpine. She cited a situation in which she said a suspect escaped from APD custody and was later recaptured because a police officer wasn’t able to immediately place that suspect in the county jail.

Wilson sided with city officials, arguing the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office already had an agreement to share its jail and that Sheriff Dodson had no legal basis to deny police suspects. At the meeting, she also suggested Dodson may have committed a crime, though she didn’t elaborate. Dodson was not present at the meeting to address those claims.

For now at least, this particular jail issue appears to be over. After the controversy hit a boiling point at last week’s city council meeting, Ponton and Sheriff Dodson arranged a meeting of their own. And ultimately, they “resolved the issue,” Mayor Ramos stated in his news release.

With the release, Ramos also included a memo from Ponton to city officials, in which Ponton confirms these details.

In a short memo of his own, Ponton said he had an “amiable meeting” with Sheriff Dodson to discuss the problems on Monday. At that meeting, Ponton wrote, Sheriff Dodson agreed the jail would “accept arrested persons from the Alpine Police Department.”

Sheriff Dodson did not respond to requests for comment by press time on the policy reversal.  But despite months of deadlock, Ponton said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the issue had been easy for him to resolve.

“I picked up the phone and called him, and then I sat down with him,” Ponton said. “It was pretty simple.”

As Mayor Ramos sees it, the issue was one of poor communication. Previously, those at both the city and the sheriff’s department have complained that the other side was being obstinate and wasn’t adequately communicating. But after the city council meeting, Ramos said he reached out to Sheriff Dodson to arrange a visit. As the mayor, “the buck stops with me,” he said.

Last Friday, Mayor Ramos and another city official, Councilmember Lucy Escovedo, went to tour the jail. Ramos said the meet-up was cordial, and it helped paved the way for Ponton’s meeting this week.

Ramos acknowledges the controversy has taken on a political dimension. But Ramos says he just wanted to make sure law-enforcement could work well together and keep Alpine safe.

“I want the truth,” Ramos said. “I want to keep our citizens safe. I don’t want to be playing games.”

“Let’s get it resolved, and let’s move on,” he added. “Let’s stop the finger-pointing.”