Jail admittance issues loom large at Alpine City Council meeting

As Alpine city council met this week, the issue of APD jail admittance once again reared its head.

ALPINE — Council discussed Alpine police’s ability to use the county jail, domestic violence awareness and a variety of upcoming fall events at a meeting that ran over three hours on Tuesday. The packed agenda on Tuesday night led the council to adjourn without getting through every agenda item, instead deciding to reconvene on Wednesday night to finish their business, after this paper went to press.

First, citizens and business owners in Alpine turned out to support Alpine’s annual Artwalk event during the public comment period. Last week Mayor Andy Ramos told The Alpine Avalanche he was not in support of the event, because of COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season. However at the meeting this week, Ramos told city council that he heard from art council representatives, who said the event would “adhere to the safety measures.” Ramos said, “And if that’s so, then we’ll move forward on it. I hadn’t had all the facts in from the council. I’m looking for the general safety of the public as a whole.”

John Kennedy, secretary of the Alpine Downtown Association told the council, “We certainly respect the need to balance public health and we thank y’all for considering all of that,” continuing, “We have lost some businesses in town, but the ones that are left, we’re trying to work with them for a way to move forward intelligently.”

Later in the meeting, the public commenters’ wishes were granted when council voted to support Artwalk, along with a Halloween parade and other fall events. Kerri Blackman, Artwalk’s founder and director, told council, “I feel like we can all respectfully pull this off.”

Councilmember Rick Stephens asked the mayor for an updated plan recommending a municipal court judge to council for approval, after the resignation of Sandy Stewart effective last Friday. While Ramos had someone in mind, he was waiting to hear about their interest before moving forward on appointing anyone.

The resignation of Stewart means the city is down to two individuals available to magistrate for arrestees, Justice of the Peace Bob Steele and County Judge Eleazar Cano.

The topic of magistrations loomed large at Tuesday’s meeting, as discussions continued about the use of the Brewster County Jail by Alpine Police Department. The jail was built on Alpine city land in return for the city’s ability to place inmates in it, according to city officials. But beginning this spring, Sheriff Ronny Dodson, who runs the county jail, began turning away inmates if they had not yet seen a magistrate.

Unlike in big cities, magistrates in Alpine are generally unavailable at night, especially for minor crimes like misdemeanors. As a result, Alpine police say they’ve been unable to quickly jail certain arrestees.

In a presentation, City Attorney Rod Ponton said it was within the sheriff’s discretion to turn away inmates who hadn’t been magistrated, saying the purpose of that requirement is so that the county would “not be held liable for false imprisonment claims.” He also said Sheriff Dodson had pointed to certain APD arrests that lacked probable cause when instituting that requirement.

When Councilmember Stephens requested concrete examples, Ponton pointed to two incidents, one in April 2020 and another “in a similar timeframe” that Dodson had highlighted. The April 2020 incident was a criminal trespass arrest that the Brewster county attorney reviewed and “determined that in his opinion there was no probable cause, and he dismissed the case,” said Ponton. Bodycam footage of this incident surfaced on social media last month, prompting a controversy and possible investigation.

As in previous discussions of this issue, officials on both sides of this dispute said they’ve struggled to get the other side to talk to them. Council and city staff remained frustrated that no meeting had been successfully set between the city and Sheriff Dodson. Councilmember Lucy Escovedo said she had seen proof the sheriff had attempted to reach out, but City Manager Erik Zimmer said they had not heard back from Dodson when trying to iron out details to set up a meeting.

Chief Martin said all communication between himself and Dodson ended in April and that he was never contacted about any issues regarding probable cause. He told the council that he had invited the Texas Rangers to “come into the department and review our cases” to address any of these concerns.

Citing arrest data, Councilmember Stephens suggested the Sheriff’s office had stopped accepting non-magistrated arrestees prior to the two incidents Ponton named. He also said the jail began accepting non-magistrated arrestees again on September 19, before Ponton met with Dodson, raising questions about Ponton’s role in resolving the issue.

However on Tuesday — the same day council met — the jail once again turned away an un-magistrated APD arrestee, raising further questions for council about whether APD had truly regained full access to the jail. “It was a violation of a protective order, family violence” Chief Martin said of Tuesday’s case. Once again, the jail would not take that arrestee without a magistration.

Ultimately, council did vote on a resolution, which passed unanimously, reaffirming that the city had gifted property to Brewster County to create a jail. The terms of that gift, council said, stipulated that Brewster County would accept arrestees of the Alpine Police Department without falter.

“Absent an agreement,” the resolution stated, “the City of Alpine will take appropriate actions that are in the best interest of the city of Alpine that ensures the safety of residents, visitors and detainees, and receives compensation from the County for land deeded to Brewster County.”

Later on the agenda there was also an item to “discuss, consider and take appropriate action, if any, on the Municipal Prosecutor/City Attorney,” which Councilmember Stephens said related to the magistration and jail issues. However, the council adjourned just before the item reached the table.

In other business, Mayor Ramos declared October Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Alpine, hearing from Gina Wilcox of the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend. The struggle to end domestic violence in the community has been a little bit harder over the last seven months, Wilcox said, due to the worldwide health crisis. The group will be raising awareness at the Midweek Music and Mercantile event, inviting the public to paint pumpkins purple, the color for domestic violence awareness.

Also during the meeting, City Manager Zimmer presented a plan for an all-ages Halloween parade and candy giveaway, since door-to-door candy collection goes against CDC guidance this year. Council also endorsed a grant application requesting $200,000 from the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Local Parks grant program to develop Pueblo Nuevo Park, and engaged Gibson, Ruddock and Patterson for a single audit for fiscal year 2020-2021.

As this issue goes to press, council is reconvening to discuss the municipal prosecutor/city attorney, changes to the dangerous dogs laws in town and an executive session to discuss the lawsuit brought against the city by Union Pacific railroads. More details on the Wednesday night meeting will be included in next week’s issue.