The Collin County Sheriff’s Office is putting out an urgent call for backup.


A rural population of more than 62,000 people spread over 499 square miles has pushed some call response times to 40 minutes or more and left the department’s 33 patrol deputies overwhelmed.


Sheriff Jim Skinner told county commissioners in a letter earlier this month that the situation has made the risks to the public and his deputies “unacceptable.”


“Patrol deputies are forced to work alone, and not just in their vehicles — but in their districts,” Skinner wrote. “There are just too many people, too many calls for service and too much traffic. The risk that backup or other help cannot arrive in time is too great.”


Herculean task


As the county’s population and requests for service continue to rise, so do response times and the number of calls stacked up waiting for response. Deputies’ average response time last year was more than 20 minutes. More than 7,359 calls last year — about 12 percent of the total calls — had a response time of 40 minutes or longer.


The July 7 letter, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, outlines the sheriff’s proposal to help rectify the problem by adding 15 deputies to the patrol section and reconfiguring that unit to be more effective. The proposal will become part of the county’s budget discussions that start in August.


Skinner was unavailable this week for comment. But his letter details the herculean task that patrol officers face on a daily basis. They spend nearly their entire shift responding to calls, he wrote.


He pointed out that policing standards recommend only about 60 percent of a shift be spent on calls. Some departments, he noted, raised concerns about under-staffing when more than 80 percent of a shift is spent on calls.


Each Collin patrol deputy’s shift starts with a backlog of calls left over from the previous shift. There is no time to do community policing, no time to talk to people outside of calls and no time for follow up, Skinner wrote.


“Patrol deputies are the most numerous and visible type of deputy in the county,” Skinner wrote. “It is best if they have at least some time to initiate some activities and not simply rush from call to call.”


‘A moral obligation’


The sheriff’s office divides the county into five patrol districts. The patrol section generally has one deputy on duty per district at any given time, although more deputies are available for some shifts. That has been the level of service for the past two decades, Skinner stated.


That means that most of the time, one deputy is responsible for handling calls in an area that generally stretches 100 square miles or more. And like many drivers in Collin County, deputies face significant traffic congestion.


“A deputy can be only one place at a time,” Skinner wrote. “And the county owes a moral obligation to have backup reasonably available to a deputy. I recommend moving closer to two deputies per district.”


While cities like Plano, McKinney and Frisco have their own police forces, the Sheriff’s Office handles crimes in the unincorporated areas. It also provides services to seven cities without police departments: Blue Ridge, Lowry Crossing, Lucas, New Hope, Nevada, St. Paul and Weston. And it serves three municipal utility districts: Inspiration Point, Seis Lagos and Trinity Falls.


“Productivity has eroded as response times across the board have increased and the number of stacked calls have skyrocketed,” Skinner wrote. “The workload-staffing disparity has also substantially contributed to burnout, damaged esprit de corps and high turnover rates.”


Making changes


Since 2000, the patrol section has added only three deputies, one of whom is dedicated to serving the city of Lucas.


The proposed staffing changes are part of a larger assessment of the sheriff’s office being done this year by Skinner and his senior staff. Skinner was sworn in as Collin County’s new sheriff on Jan. 1. He replaced Terry Box, who retired in December after 31 years at the helm of the department.


Under his proposal, Skinner plans to move seven deputies from other areas to the patrol section. Two would come from the traffic unit, and one each from the civil unit and the narcotics and special operations unit. Three school resource officers would also be transferred to patrol.


His plan also calls for adding eight new deputies. Three would be funded through reallocations in the sheriff’s existing budget. Four are expected to be paid for through interlocal agreements with cities and municipal utility districts that get county service.


Skinner wants the county to pay for the eighth patrol deputy position at a cost of $85,630.


Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis is offering $55,218 from his civil asset forfeiture fund to help cover startup and training costs for the new deputies.


Skinner also asks that the county pay $342,520 to replace the four deputy positions being transferred from other units. The transfers will leave the other units understaffed, but Skinner noted the patrol issues present “a more serious risk.”


School resource officers would be added back to the department — but only if the school districts pick up 100 percent of their salaries, he stated.


Skinner’s proposal would also reconfigure the patrol section into four platoons. Each platoon would have 12 deputies, including a field-training deputy and a canine-deputy team. The sheriff’s SWAT team would also be disbanded and reorganized as four rapid-response teams, one for each platoon.


Keeping everybody safe


County Judge Keith Self said he couldn’t comment on the sheriff’s reorganization plan. Commissioners are still reviewing it and had not yet discussed it as a group, he said.


“We will continue to provide excellent public safety to the citizens of Collin County regardless of how this particular plan is implemented,” Self said.


Commissioner Cheryl Williams said Skinner’s proposal clearly lays out the issues. “Response times in my opinion have been way too long,” she said.


Deputies’ safety is also a concern for Williams.


“Nothing dreadful has occurred, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t if we don’t take some action,” she said. “Just because they’ve been able to manage doesn’t mean that it is appropriate.”