Long before federal authorities began scrutinizing Texas State University's campus crime data, the police department was hampered by lack of resources, former employees say. Surveillance camera feeds were broken. Emergency phones malfunctioned. And a thinly staffed dispatch system sometimes relied on trained students.
One retired sergeant, Johnny Johnston, was so concerned that he cited safety as one reason he won’t let his children attend Texas State. Johnston, who worked at the school from 2000 to 2017, recalled several occasions when he pulled tape of an incident and it just had "dead air." Some emergency phones would fail to dial out — and when it rained, they sometimes went haywire, sending out false alerts, said Johnston and two other former employees.
More recently, Facebook users have demanded more cameras and guards around the San Marcos campus — which does not have surveillance feeds in every garage — after police alerted the public in September of an attempted sexual assault in a parking structure without cameras.
“You pay millions for a new football stadium and you can’t install cameras in all the garages???” one person commented on the police department’s social media page.
Another responded: “Still no cameras huh? My son’s truck was broken into in that garage three years ago. Cameras need to be installed!”
The university is conducting a security survey of the garages and will be “making improvements,” said Eric Algoe, a vice president for finance and support services who has overseen the police department since last fall. “There can never be enough, in particular, cameras — even with over 700 it seems like we're always wishing we had more. So it's not to say that it can't be better and that we don't continually try to get better.”
He added: “Any time you have a system where it’s more than 50 of those [blue phone] devices, and then over 700 cameras, there's always going to be the routine maintenance and failure rate that you have with any large distributed technology system.”
School officials believe the majority of security technology is operational now and said they were not aware of widespread problems in the past. There doesn’t appear to be documentation of the equipment’s performance; management of the cameras and emergency phones was moved from police to an information technology department late last year, and Algoe and new chief Laurie Clouse did not assume oversight of the police until recently.
The university also reported last month that it had underreported the number of some crimes on campus — including rapes — in 2016 and 2017.
Former police chief Jose Bañales said a number of inoperative emergency phones were taken offline to be repaired in those same years. Though fixing and installing security equipment was important to him, Bañales said he faced headwinds from the facilities department and that it was hard to make repairs because “we only had one dedicated individual to that.”
“In my opinion, if they really took safety seriously, they would have added more personnel to that function,” said Bañales, who resigned abruptly in 2018, citing a lack of support from the administration.
Algoe, who also oversees facilities, said the police employee who handled security equipment could submit work orders that would be fulfilled by other departments.
Former employees also told the Tribune it had been common practice for there to be just one employee working dispatch — answering emergency calls, assisting people who walk into the building’s lobby, receiving notifications from the blue phones, and sending officers, safety escorts, security personnel and parking guards into the field. Sometimes, that dispatcher was a student who had received telecommunications officer training.
The system came under strain in the fall of 2017 when the campus received a series of bomb threats. Employees in the building were asked to help the one dispatcher on duty answer phone calls, and student workers were called in from their classes to assist, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the events.
Bañales, the chief at the time, said he phased some students out of dispatch and made dispatchers’ pay more competitive with neighboring police departments, using his existing budget.
Texas State officials say they no longer employ students in dispatch. Clouse, the police chief since February, said she is putting in place a system where two dispatchers work 12-hour shifts together, with a communications supervisor joining for daytime hours. She said it’s not ideal but not uncommon in law enforcement to have just one dispatcher working at a time.
The department has also installed a recorded phone tree to more efficiently divert non-emergency calls from dispatchers and direct them to the appropriate offices. And school officials said most students use cell phones or university safety apps — not the blue emergency phones — to connect with police departments. Fewer than 10 calls are received from the emergency phones a year, they said, most from people seeking car help.
While the emergency phone technology may be outdated, former employees say lack of resources hurt nearly every aspect of the department. A 2018 peer review found Texas State’s police did not have “sufficient personnel” and that the staffing shortages were a “serious concern” across the board.
One employee, for example, was responsible for federal crime-reporting requirements alongside other job duties — including dispatch for a time. The university has since acknowledged it underreported campus crime data, which seems to be a violation of a federal statute known as the Clery Act, and the U.S. Department of Education has been scrutinizing the institution since at least May. School officials say they have not been told they are under investigation by the department, a process that can lead to hefty fines.
Smaller budget than other schools
Budget documents and numbers provided by officials indicate Texas State is spending less on public safety than some similarly sized schools.
In 2018, the university had 39,000 students and budgeted about $4.3 million to its police department.
The number of officers on its force — 40 — has not changed significantly since at least 2010, despite seeing an increase of some 6,000 students on campus.
By contrast, the University of North Texas, which had 38,000 students, spent $5.5 million last year. Texas Tech University, which shares its police with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, allocated $7.1 million this fiscal year to serve a combined student body of around 43,000.
On the high side, the University of Houston — with 46,000 students — budgeted $11.6 million this year; and the University of Texas at San Antonio — with 32,000 students — set aside $7.3 million. It’s hard to compare university data due to factors like how many students commute to school and the campus’ location in an urban or rural setting.
School officials said they have added five positions to the police department in the last two years and are committed to expanding it further. Texas State has also undertaken reforms since the 2018 peer review, including hiring Clouse, who has an extensive background in university policing and federal requirements, and increasing training.
Texas State is also in the midst of a $1.6 million project to improve lighting on the San Marcos campus, has increased officer bicycle and foot patrols, and introduced a late-night security escort service. The information technology department is evaluating campus security technology to address any deficiencies they find.
“Our guiding priorities are the safety, security and peace of mind of our university community, and we will continue to examine ways we can do better to fulfill that goal,” the university said in a statement.
Disclosure: The Texas State University System, the University of North Texas and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.