With stagnant wages and rising cost of living, Presidio sees police officer shortage that could shutter department

PRESIDIO — At last week’s city council meeting, Presidio Chief of Police Margarito Hernandez addressed local leaders about a problem he’s seen brewing for years: the department’s starting wage of $14.95 hasn’t kept up with the local cost of living. “If you look at the big cities, even Whataburger pays $15 an hour,” he told the city officials gathered in the Presidio Activities Center.

In the past two years alone, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have wreaked havoc on the world’s economy — higher rents, gas prices and wonky exchange rates have trickled down all the way to remote communities like Presidio. Hernandez told the Presidio International that a perfect storm of stagnant wages and the reality of being an officer on the border could one day leave Presidio without a police department. 

Hernandez currently oversees two officers, down from the three or four he’s seen the Presidio Police Department retain in his tenure. He recently lost two officers: one who trained to work as an electrician and one who became a hunting guide at Cibolo Creek. Hernandez understands that kind of turnover as someone who had trouble deciding between work in the oilfields and finishing police academy as a younger man. “When you can make money somewhere else, you go make money somewhere else,” he said. 

José Cabezuela, the chief of police who served for three years before turning the department over to Hernandez in 2021, said that he hadn’t struggled with the same retention issues. Cabezuela’s new recruits made $14.95 an hour in the years just before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. “We always had plenty of officers,” he said. Cabezuela kept three or four officers on staff throughout his tenure.

Hernandez has been a lawman since 1998, when he joined the Presidio County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s been so many years that I’ve been working as an officer, I understand how things work,” he said. The long hours spent in the office and on patrol don’t help prevent burnout — Hernandez reported working about 50 hours a week, and has put his newer recruits on night shifts. “You don’t know how many birthday parties, how many Christmases, how many Thanksgivings I’ve lost since I started this job,” he continued. “You spend all your time putting in your best effort.”

Some of that stress isn’t new — it’s intrinsic to the job. In Hernandez’s early days on the force, he worked the night shift by himself. “It’s scary, sometimes it’s pretty dangerous,” he said. “That’s the way we used to work. Now there’s more traffic, there’s more people — it’s kind of hard to have just one officer working outside.” 

In Hernandez’s view, that’s partly because the nature of crime in Presidio has changed. When he first started the job, he mostly responded to domestic violence calls; now, he’s dealing with a lot more drug busts. “Now you notice a lot of different drugs coming across [the border]. Before, I would very rarely see coke or heroin or meth.”

Customs and Border Protection statistics suggest a steady decrease in the amount of narcotics coming across the border since 2015, but don’t reflect homegrown products or the explosion of prescription drugs like fentanyl and opioids that have tainted the country’s drug supply. “That’s one of the challenges right now — sometimes you stop a person and you don’t know if they’re high on something,” he said. 

Hernandez’s officers have to be adaptable and prepared to deal with any number of scenarios — the Presidio Police Department serves as a kind of switchboard for the community at large. He’s had to respond to everything from water leaks to medical emergencies before the proper authorities can get there. “We’re first responders. Sometimes we’re medics, sometimes we’re electricians, sometimes we’re plumbers,” he said. “We’ve had house fires where we go and put it out with the neighbor’s hose.”

Beyond the stress of heading into emergencies before anyone else reaches the scene, Hernandez believes changing public perception of his job has impacted recruitment. “People don’t understand the responsibility you have when you carry a gun,” he explained. He feels that, in the wake of public outcry over police killing citizens, there’s a desire to take officers’ actions out of context.

Sometimes that scrutiny is inward — watching the legal process unfold after an officer makes an arrest can be an emotional experience. “Something that really upsets you is when you work to resolve a case and nothing happens,” he said. “Sometimes the younger generation doesn’t understand that we do our work and the county or the district attorney doesn’t want to prosecute. It’s their decision, not ours.”

Hernandez feels that all of these factors have made young people from Presidio less likely to seek out police work, especially because they can’t start training until they’re 21. “Sometimes by the age of 21, they have a wife and kids, and it gets harder,” he said. Without competitive salaries, it’s hard to attract younger folks who haven’t settled on a profession. “It’s gotta be somebody who likes the job, whose satisfaction is helping other people, [for whom] the pay is not important.”

Last week, Hernandez met with city officials, hoping to bump up the police department’s pay before next year’s city budget is finalized. He was promised $16.50; his goal is closer to $18. He pointed out that new Brewster County Sheriff’s Department recruits make $18; the Sul Ross Police Department pays $19. The Alpine Police Department pays $18.50 and Marfa PD pays $16.30. 

If wages don’t keep pace with other departments, Hernandez worries that the police department will have to disband and turn Presidio over to the county sheriff. The problem with becoming the Presidio County sheriff’s domain is mostly geographic: if the PCSD has a deputy out in Candelaria or the eastern edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park, it might be an hour and a half before they can get to a scene in Presidio. 

Marfa’s police chief, Steven Marquez, has dealt with the delicate relationship between city and county throughout his career as an officer. Marquez was elected Precinct 1 Constable in 2013 when there wasn’t an official Marfa Police Department. He then joined the reconstituted department in 2017. “There was a period of time that the sheriff’s office did take calls for the city,” he explained. “Basically, the sheriff’s office was there to provide relief for the officers that were there for the city, and the city covered those costs.” 

Dan Dunlap, the mayor at the time the original Marfa PD was disbanded in 2009, said that the move to disband the police department was about “consolidating resources”. The City of Marfa ultimately opted out of their contract with the sheriff’s department in 2017, citing accountability issues. In his five years with the new department, Marquez has seen some of the same retention issues as Hernandez, but with a distinctly Marfa twist.  

Unlike Presidio, which has an entirely-homegrown force, many of Marquez’s staff has come from out of town — in particular, El Paso. One of Marquez’s officers left because she was unable to find daycare; others have struggled to find affordable housing in Marfa’s ballooning real estate market. “We have one opening right now,” he explained. “That’s the hard part — we have people looking into living here, but it’s hard for them to find affordable housing.” 

Marquez said that because he’s working with a small-town budget, he isn’t able to pour as many resources into recruitment as a larger department, who might be able to cover the cost of police academy and other training for promising new officers. He has been happy to be able to offer raises to officers as they gain experience. “You start as a basic peace officer, and then you move up to intermediate,” he explained. “If an officer comes in with a little more experience, they’ll start off [with a higher wage].”

Marquez would ideally like to work with four officers — one for about every five hundred people in town. Hernandez, on the other hand, has two, responsible for about two thousand people apiece. Despite the challenges facing Presidio’s police department, Hernandez stressed that he finds his job fulfilling. “My heart is in helping people,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going.”