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Battling crime with 21st-century resources: Q&A with McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara

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  • 10 min to read

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara says his priority involves beefing up security and equipment amidst times of hostility and more sophisticated criminals.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, 69, a retired deputy U.S. marshal whose family has long been involved in area law enforcement, is running for re-election in the March 1 Republican primary election as he begins the final year of his first four-year term. He has received endorsements from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association of McLennan County, Waco Association of Realtors, Bellmead Police Officers Association and the Waco GoodFellas.

Q    You’ve been in law enforcement in one respect or another most of your career. You spent a lot of it obviously as a deputy U.S. marshal working with federal laws and federal protocol. How different is it as a county sheriff beholden to state laws and regulations?

A    Actually it’s been fairly similar in a lot of ways, and I’ll kind of try to explain that. As a deputy U.S. marshal, I served right here in Waco. So I’m dealing with most of the same people — the same good people, same criminals, or a lot of them, and the duties of a U.S. marshal are very similar to the sheriff, only on a federal level. We track down fugitives in both jobs. We provide protection, judicial protection, for the courts. We guard the federal court as marshals, we guard the state courts as sheriffs. We transport prisoners. The marshal is in charge of housing federal inmates. Of course now I do it through the county jail. But even though there are a lot of similarities, when I was with the federal government or the U.S. marshals, the government hired me. And as sheriff, the people hire me. The people are my boss. And I take that to heart every single day.

Q    You came in with an agenda to broaden sheriff’s office duties beyond patrols, routine crime investigation and management of the jail. You have this drug task force. You have a fugitive task force now. How have these duties worked out and are you not concerned that maybe you’re expanding the sheriff’s department beyond what it can do in terms of personnel for a growing county?

A    I’m not concerned about that at all. It’s worked very well. And when I came in, one of my main objectives and campaign promises was to form an organized crime unit, a drug unit. We had none. My predecessor made it clear that they didn’t investigate drug cases. Anybody who knows anything about crime knows that most every crime is drug-related in some way. Either they’re on it, they’re trying to get money for it or they’re selling it. I would venture to say 90 to 95 percent of crimes are drug-related. And so I saw a real need for a drug unit. When I was with the U.S. Marshals Service, we worked very closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Q    Over the past three years what would you say has been the highlight of your administration?

A    I’m most proud of the way that our troops, our patrol guys, our Criminal Investigation Division detectives, our jail, all of our staff, how they’ve been motivated. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do. This is not a one-man show. It’s a team effort and I’m just part of it. But I try to motivate them. Most of these officers were already well-trained. And I just turned them loose and let them do their job as law enforcement officers. I guess the main thing is seeing them do that and hearing the response from (people) in the county saying we’re seeing more sheriff’s units out in the county, that we’re doing operations inside the city, that we do raids in Waco. We’re not just on the county roads out there.

Q    But do you really need to be broadening services to include Waco when we have the Waco Police Department? This is one thing your chief opponent has been critical of. He says we have police officers to take care of city limits and you guys need to be out in the area, protecting unincorporated stretches and bolstering small-town police departments.

A    Apparently he hasn’t been out in the county and seen our officers out there. Waco is in McLennan County. When we do things inside the city, it’s because the city is inside the county. McGregor is inside the county. West is inside the county. Mart, Moody, these other places are, so it’s our responsibility to back them up and help them. And we back the Waco Police Department up quite often. And they back us up. If we hear a call, “Waco officer, there’s a fight going on,” we don’t wait till they call the sheriff’s office.

Q    But you’re not worried about overlap?

A    I’m not worried about overlap at all. Not one bit.

Q    And you think the rural stretches are well enough protected?

A    We have a lot of officers out there on patrol and I stand behind that. We have people all the time telling us they’re seeing a lot more patrol than they did before in the county. We respond to Moody. We’ve done drug raids in West. We’ve done them in Mart. We’ve done them all over the place out in the county. We’ve done them in other counties, supporting Hill County, Bosque County. And, you know, you can say, “Well, you stay inside the county.” But if we can stop that before it gets into our county, if we can stop it in Hill County or we can stop it somewhere else before it comes into our county, we’re ahead of the game.

Q    But do you sense Waco PD is begrudging such assistance, perhaps even seeing it as intrusive?

A    I think because of the way my predecessor did — just leaving the city alone — I might have ruffled feathers when we started doing things inside the city. We did drug raids in Bellmead, working with the Bellmead Police Department. Very, very seldom do we do a drug raid or any kind of a raid in Waco that we don’t contact Waco PD. We don’t try to jump in front of them. I’m not here to do that. The main thing we want to do is get the job done, protect the public. And if it means doing arrests or raids or whatever within the city . . . we’re in the middle of one of our big operations right now that’s going to last another two weeks and it’s going to be awfully good. [A human-trafficking sting with 46 arrests, mostly in Waco, was unveiled on Feb. 2, shortly after this interview.] A lot of this is taking place in the city. But this idea that the sheriff just needs to stay out on the country roads . . . .

Q    The sheriff’s office stood shoulder to shoulder with Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton and the police after the Twin Peaks shootout. Did everything work in unison on that occasion?

A    Perfectly. We got there after the shootout and we were equipped to handle the quantity of people who were under arrest or who were detained at the time. There were like 190-odd people initially, so we got all of our jail staff and one of the assistant chiefs thanked the sheriff’s office a thousand times for our support because we brought our vans. Our guys know how to search and frisk and detain and chain those guys. Our vans only held like 10 or 12 maximum if you packed them in there like sardines, so we had to get city buses. We put SWAT team members on the bus with machine guns guarding them to the convention center and then we processed them there. It was just bus after bus after bus, and it couldn’t have gone smoother at that point.

Q    At the McLennan County Republican Women’s candidate forum the other day, Police Sgt. Swanton questioned your management skills and your losing key personnel, including your longtime friend and chief deputy, Matt Cawthon.

A    He’s also said that, along with losing the chief deputy, there were three captains who left. Totally false — another one of his lies. One captain left because he got a higher-paying job. That was a jail captain. He got a higher-paying job at Baylor University. He has a daughter going to Baylor. He has one fixing to go to Baylor. So he got one heck of a pay raise there. His dad and I went to North Junior High School here together. He and I talked about it and I said, “John, you cannot afford to stay.” I said, “It’s my loss and it’s your gain.” So what Swanton is saying is false. I talked to John last week. He came by my office. And we talked about it and he and I never had a cross word.

Q    I imagine Sgt. Swanton’s citing of your losing former Texas Ranger Matt Cawthon is far more searing, given there clearly were differences between you and him that prompted him to leave. He was regarded as a real asset when you were able to get him back in 2013.

A    You need to remember one thing. I’ve got give or take 380 employees, and I can’t please everybody. I try to please all I can. Matt just didn’t work out. We had a difference of opinion. And that’s all I’m going to say. And Swanton, you know, he flies that flag in my face. But I’m not going to try to publicly bash Matt. That’s water under the bridge. He’s gone. And, you know, he’s supporting Swanton. But let me just finish a little bit of this. What Pat Swanton was saying about three captains — one captain who was an administrative captain was demoted and went to the academy, became a certified peace officer, and he is now one of our detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division. The only captain that ever really left was the one who went to Baylor and that was of his own accord.

Q    You’re a strong proponent of Second Amendment rights and have given testimony for expanding gun rights before the Texas Legislature. Courthouse officials seem to be trying to live up to the spirit of the new open-carry law without allowing guns in areas where they might impede or imperil justice, which has come down to banning guns in the courthouse and courthouse annex. How do you see this controversial issue?

A    I don’t think anybody realized the state attorney general’s opinion was going to come down and say, “Hey, you’ve got to allow guns at the courthouse.” They did kind of leave it open that you could designate (certain areas off limits to guns). Now, I think people obviously have the right to carry, they have the right to protect themselves. Open-carry works in a lot of other states. But there are areas that need to be secured and a courthouse is one of them. You have judges, you have attorneys on both sides, you have witnesses, you have jurors and you have prisoners, people in custody or people on trial. All of those people need to be protected. And if you have a courthouse where people are walking up and down the halls with long guns, ARs or AK-47s or pistols on, there’s nothing between them and all those people except a door, usually with glass in it. So the courthouse needs to be secured. I’m 100 percent behind that. And we have plenty of guns there.

Q    So it’s not really a gun-free zone, as some Second Amendment buffs claim.

A    It’s not a gun-free zone because it is protected by law enforcement.

Q    County commissioners have been trying to limit county spending and in the last original budget request you sought an extra $560,000 for jail operations and new employees with salaries totalling over $300,000. Yet you claim savings to the county. Can you square this?

A    We gave back to the county in fiscal year 2015 exactly $1,031,683. That was to go to the sheriff’s office. We did not spend that. And we’ve been successful in other ways. We got a $50,000 donation from a friend of mine for guns and ammunition that we did not have. So that right there was $50,000 worth of equipment that we very badly needed. We didn’t have any ARs in any of our vehicles. We had shotguns, and so we were running up against shooters who had ARs. And so when this citizen in our community found out we needed rifles, he came into the office and said, “I want to help out, I don’t like your guys not being armed,” and he wrote out a $50,000 check. I thought he was going to bring in $5,000! You know, I have really tried to bring the sheriff’s office into modern times, so to speak. A lot of our equipment was outdated and so we used part of this for new gas masks. And we have a mine-resistant, ambush-proof vehicle. We’ve used it to get our SWAT team close to active shooters — people who were shooting at our helicopter, people who were shooting at Hill County deputies. It’s for search-and-rescue as much as anything. That vehicle is valued at over $700,000. And we got that at no expense to the county.

Q    Was that through the federal government?

A    Yes. It’s worked out great. We don’t move it against civilians or anything, other than people who are dangerous. I believe we used it three times on active shooters. And we have a bomb squad truck coming because the one we’re using is a 1995 ambulance that is out of whack. I mean, when I went into Gillespie County down there at Fredericksburg back in August when they requested us — nobody would help them and they called us and we went down there — we had two blowouts on the way down. And so we’re jacking the thing up — we ran out of spare tires — and, well, we kind of looked like the Beverly Hillbillies going down the road, throwing rubber all over the highway. But we have a new bomb truck that is being manufactured, being fixed, that will be self-contained. So we got $118,266 from a [U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant] to get us a new bomb truck, which will be good for years and years.

Q    Still, during county commissioners court meetings it sometimes seems there’s an awful lot of expense in the sheriff’s office.

A    That’s primarily because of the security. We stepped up arrests in the sheriff’s office. Our arrests were up 450 percent, from 800 to over 3,500 the first year we took over. You know, my opponent likes to say those were misdemeanor arrests, but a big portion of that were felonies. Our Fugitive Apprehension and Special Task Unit — in six months those three guys have arrested over 170 felons. They’ve cleared 300-odd misdemeanor warrants that were subsequent to those felony arrests. We’re putting more people in jail for one thing. And how can I say it — the political atmosphere is such today that we’re concerned more about security in the courthouse.

Q    I hesitate to ask about this because it’s more a creature of social media, but there have been back-and-forth charges about your trying to give county-funded flashlights out as Christmas gifts and some county audit.

A    Totally false. I mean, totally, totally false. What Swanton did was very dishonest and I called him out on it. Channel 6 called me on a Friday and they said, “We hate to ask you about this, but Pat Swanton has accused you of stealing from the county.” It never happened, and why he would stoop this low I have no idea. Only he knows. It’s gotten to be kind of a joke. You know, my kid — one daughter lives in Wichita Falls — she calls up and says, “Dad, Dad, where’s my flashlight?” And I said, “That’s not even funny!” So one of [wife] Charlotte’s daughters calls from Aspen where she lives and says, “I want my flashlight. We didn’t get ’em.” Just craziness.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.