Tension between El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Officers Association has boiled to the surface.
The union has thrown its support behind a candidate for sheriff, and it is not backing the membership’s boss.
“We decided to take a vote as the association and we had a unanimous vote to vote for (Republican candidate) Tom Buchino,” Robert Horstman, the president of the EPCSOA, told ABC-7.
Horstman said the vote for an endorsement was taken at last week’s association meeting, which was attended by 168 members. Several other association members confirmed to ABC-7 there were no votes against backing Buchino.
The sheriff told ABC-7 he had no comment about the vote, but disputed it was unanimous.
“That’s not my understanding of what occurred,” Wiles said, “I didn’t ask for their endorsement. I would not ask for it. And I’m okay that they endorsed my opponent, if they feel that is what they need to do.
“I don’t work for the union. I work for the taxpayers and citizens. And as long as they’re happy with my work, then I’m good,” he said.
Horstman said the membership voted to endorse Wiles’ opponent because of a “disconnect” between the sheriff and the officers.
“I don’t think that they listen to their officers,” Horstman said. “I don’t think that they’re paying attention to the morale of the officers and how to improve working conditions.”
Wiles disagrees, chalking up the endorsement to politics.
“I think the employee morale is good,” Wiles said. He referred to a recent, independent study by the National Police Research Platform of his agency. “(Survey) results indicated that compared to agencies across the state, our employees are satisfied.”
According to the NPRP website, the organization focuses on changes that occur within and across police organizations and police officers and measures the responses of employees to those changes through web-based surveys.
“This is between union and county and they’re not satisfied with some of the things in their contract, and now they’re using arbitration to try to change some of the things in there,” Wiles said.
In the last six weeks, the association has filed several grievances against the sheriff’s office. The grievances focus on alleged contract violations. The most serious grievance alleges that an assault on a detention officer was due to improper staffing. Other grievances involve alleged instances of improper staffing during inmate transports and in the jail, and a denial of contractual lunch breaks due to insufficient staffing.
“We want to be manned to the point where we can take care of our officers, and function the way we’re supposed to,” Horstman said.
Wiles pointed out the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office just received the sixth re-accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) on March 24.
The accreditation recognizes the office’s “voluntary commitment to law enforcement excellence by living up to a body of standards deemed essential to the protection of the life, health, safety and rights of the citizens it serves,” according to the sheriff’s website.
Wiles also told ABC-7 he takes the grievance process seriously and they will be investigated. But he still thinks they’re frivolous and will be dismissed.
“I expect to be hit with more things of this nature and that’s just the way it is when you run for elected office,” Wiles said. “I’ll leave my fate up to the voters.”
Wiles believes most of the discontent stems from the changes he’s made within the department. The biggest change was eliminating overtime pay for detention and peace officers, which Wiles said saved taxpayers $20 million.
Horstman disagrees with Wiles’ assertion.
“The sheriff contends to the public that this is an overtime issue. And we’re contending through our grievances that this is not an overtime issue, it’s a minimal staffing issue,” he said.
The union and the sheriff are currently in arbitration regarding a grievance over “civilianization.” The department is currently transitioning some positions at the jail from detention officers to civilians. Wiles said the move will also save taxpayer money and free up highly trained officers to do law enforcement duties rather than paperwork. The union said putting civilians in certain positions could endanger their lives and others in detention facilities.
It could be up to two months before a ruling is issued.
The Republican candidate for sheriff, Tom Buchino, has also picked up endorsements from the police officer associations for El Paso, Anthony, Texas; Socorro Independent School District and the U.S. Border Patrol Local Union.
Wiles told ABC-7 he has been endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors.
Election Day is Nov. 8.
Watch Good Morning El Paso anchor Stephanie Valle’s report Friday on ABC-7 at 6.