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Castle Hills considers adding traffic officer

City Council mulls new position to keep up with calls

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CASTLE HILLS — The City Council is resuming talks in February about creating a dedicated position on the Police Department to catch speeders and other traffic scofflaws.

On Dec. 8, then-Police Chief Johnny Siemens briefed the council about the traffic-enforcement concept — just weeks before he left to take over as Universal City’s top cop.

Siemens said an increase in service calls means officers have more difficulty answering complaints about speeding motorists, drivers disregarding stop signs and red lights, and similar violations.

“The greater concern is the lack of real-time response to complaints,” Siemens said. “The volume of policing calls has increased to the level that our current staff lacks the resources.”

Officers currently volunteer for traffic shifts based on their work schedule, unlike larger departments such as San Antonio with dedicated, full-time traffic divisions.

Siemens noted the coronavirus pandemic has meant less traffic overall as more people work from home and remotely attend classes. However, San Antonio’s population explosion has led additional motorists to cut through neighboring Castle Hills.

Bustling Loop 410 also bisects the town.

“We do receive and have received a lot of complaints about speeding, not only in the neighborhoods but on Northwest Military (Highway),” City Manager Ryan Rapelye said.

More younger families and pedestrians, as well as numerous bus stops, add risks for the public, according to Siemens.

“This issue has been arising slightly before (the pandemic) started and trending that way for years now, as long as (the area’s) growth rate continues,” Siemens added.

The last few months, he received about 10 emailed traffic-related negative comments; in the past, the department heard only a handful over five or six years.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but those specific individual complaints are often addressed by the next available officer,” Siemens said.

He suggested the city could save money by converting an existing Chevrolet Tahoe in the police fleet into a dedicated traffic-enforcement vehicle. The Tahoe wouldn’t be used or rotated as much, leading to longer life for the vehicle, he said.

“I think with wear and tear, one officer rotating in and out, would allow it to be maintained in our fleet longer, at least allowing us to determine whether the program is going to be self-supporting, self-sufficient,” Siemens said.

If a dedicated traffic-enforcement unit is approved, periodic reviews would determine the program’s effectiveness, officers said.

Alderman Joe Izbrand favors the proposal, but first needs more figures to support it, and answers on how the city would pay for the additional position.

“I think it’d be compelling to the public if we had the data showing that officers are tied up with all these other calls, unable to respond to complaints like this,” Izbrand said.

He added, “Before we act to create an employment position that brings all the expenses, short term and long term, with it, it’ll be helpful to look at the data and make sure whatever decision we make is in the best interests, short term and long term, of the city.”

Alderman Douglas Gregory agreed more research is required, but expressed concern existing pay and benefits for a new, dedicated traffic officer over a decade would cost more than $700,000.

“That’s a ton of money that goes for one police officer when we’re trying to find the money to fix streets,” he noted.

Gregory said the department should first fill a current vacancy before adding a post.

He also recommended Castle Hills police ask their San Antonio counterparts to more aggressively address traffic infractions adjacent to the suburb.

Rapelye said San Antonio law officers often pull over a motorist on a Castle Hills street or visa versa.

Castle Hills is working to renew an interlocal agreement with San Antonio on traffic-enforcement cooperation.

Meanwhile, Castle Hills has begun the search to replace Siemens, who served with CHPD since 2013. The city advertised the job, and a panel will review applicants, but no timeline on a hire has been set.

Bidding farewell to council Jan. 12, Siemens said, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, economy and past local political turmoil, he was “excited for Castle Hills’ future.”

eortiz@localcommunitynews.com

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