There’s no reason to suspect the next mass shooting will occur near here, but law enforcement plans for keeping people safe must include that possibility, officials say.
The El Campo Police Department and Wharton County Sheriff’s Department have implemented procedures to ensure a maximum presence at major community events along with security protocols likely to be unnoticed by the general public until enacted.
Danger out there
Anyone who thinks a mass shooting can’t happen in West Wharton County may be surprised that two already have – within the last two years. Dozens of people have been endangered, although in each case, casualties mercifully were light.
In July 2018, multiple shots rang out at El Campo’s Willie Bell Park during a crowded holiday weekend somehow missing everyone.
A drive-by shooting targeting a birthday party on FM 1162 in July resulted in five of the 20-plus attending to be injured, but all survived.
“A mass shooting is always a concern. We certainly live in different times, citizens must always be alert and aware of surroundings,” El Campo Police Chief Terry Stanphill told the Leader-News. “We do train for such events, but would rather prevent them. We work closely with schools and share information.”
Public awareness is part of the plan.
“I want the public to know that Wharton County law enforcement is doing everything in their power to keep our communities safe,” Wharton County Sheriff Shannon Srubar said. “I strongly feel we need to be prepared for the worst. I will never say ‘it can’t happen here.’”
Proactive approaches like school walk-throughs in the county and school resource officers in El Campo ISD help, but the public must be part of the plan.
See Something, Say Something
“I am proud to say all law enforcement agencies in Wharton County have an active approach in the public’s safety, but I still ask for everyone’s help. See something, Say something. We rely on the public to report suspicious and dangerous activity,” Srubar said.
Chief Stanphill agreed.
“If they are concerned about an individual’s activities or comments, then we want to know ... we take them all seriously,” he said.
The potential for danger is not just three states away, or at a major festival. As the events last week in Odessa proved, danger can be on a highway. Schools have become targets as well as churches and restaurants in large cities and small communities.
There are no guarantees anymore.
“I urge the public to always have a plan. In every building you enter, know your exits and routes to remove yourself from a bad situation safely,” Srubar said, adding, “With that said, we are all blessed to live in Wharton County, especially looking at crime rates just to the north and south of Wharton County ... I do not want the public to fear leaving their home. We live in a great community that still looks out for one another.”
Mutual Aid Standard Procedure
Although they are two separate departments, officers from the El Campo Police Department or sheriff’s office, at times, respond as one to bolster force strength.
“For example, the FM 1162 shooting ... WCSO Sgt. (Jim) Staude ... has shared suspect information, suspect vehicle information and general information on those possibly involved. I pass the information on to our officers so they can watch for groups gathering. If they see any activity, they can increase presence in the area hopefully deterring any criminal activity. “
The ECPD, WCSO and all other law enforcement agencies also receive state and national reports on potential criminal activity in the area.
Locally, steps were put into place several years ago to deter crime at large events from theft and drunkenness to violence.
It starts with the police presence. In preparation for these events, the department prevents any officer from taking a vacation day. “This assures we will have a full crew on the street with officers spending as much time as possible at or around the event creating a visible presence. I also utilize my OT budget, I’ve used more than ever this year adding officers while large events are going on, like the food truck night, worship night in the park, recent softball tournament, etc. We also redirect our patrols to areas people gather,” Stanphill said.
The sheriff’s department also works with event coordinators to make sure security is adequate.
“Often times, those determinations can be met by exploring the amount of people that are expected to be in attendance and the type of event,” Srubar said.
Few open air local events have any fencing, a fact creating multiple access points to cover.
“Security ... is always a challenge. Fencing has been utilized in the past and is always a consideration, but it does not solve all problems. Even in a good secure location like the Civic Center, officers have caught people opening fire exits to allow others in or to bring in contraband, alcohol, etc. We try to keep officers visible to create a deterrence, maintain good communications between officers and event staff so we can move to areas of concern quickly,” Stanphill said.
Srubar agreed fencing is not an immediate solution.
The efforts ensure more visible officers, but puts a strain on the force from patrol officers to dispatchers.
”It is a trickle-down effect,” Stanphill said.
“There are times when there are not enough deputies to work security jobs. This is very rare but does happen from time to time. Deputies assigned to patrol on those evenings will often conduct random checks on the venues. Agencies will work together and will often ask for help covering security jobs,” Srubar said.
It’s a daunting task balancing the what ifs versus holiday times and worker expectations.
Police officers are people too, they seek the best working conditions they can with the highest pay and best benefits.
Retention is always an issue.
“I try to provide the best equipment and working conditions I can for the staff and still provide the best service for citizens,” Stanphill said.