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Former lawman Willie Tompkins says combating crime means bolstering dialogue between law enforcement and the community and seeking ways to defuse conflicts.

Staff photo— Rod Aydelotte

Willie Tompkins, 66, pastor of New Generation Church in Bellmead and a substitute teacher in the Waco Independent School District, is making his second bid for McLennan County sheriff, this time as a Republican in the March 1 GOP primary election. He cites as his experience 600 hours of police training at the Waco Police Academy, work as a Waco police officer as a patrolman who later worked in undercover vice and narcotics as well as work as an investigator in the district attorney’s office.

Q    You ran for sheriff in 2012. What prompts you to want to run for this office again?

A    Well, it was my ultimate goal to run a second time once I got my feet wet. I thought I’d give it another shot.

Q    But do you have any reason for being more hopeful a second time?

A    A lot of things have come into play that give me a more forceful reason to run. For instance, Sheriff McNamara got sued basically before he even got into office. So I kind of thought I could have done a better job there because, first of all, you assess a situation before you do anything about it. I’m not kicking him or doing anything like that, but it kind of got me to thinking that maybe I needed to run again.

Q    You’re referring to the $2 million settlement that the county made with some sheriff’s office employees. [The plaintiffs had alleged McNamara fired or demoted them in retaliation because they supported his 2012 primary opponent, former Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Plemons.] What would you have done differently?

A    First of all, going into a new job of sheriff of McLennan County, I need to sit down and assess the whole situation as a sheriff. What do I have that’s good, what do I have that’s bad, what needs to be improved, what needs to be changed before I start taking people out? When I was in the district attorney’s office, I worked at the will of the district attorney.

Q    Are there other reasons that prompt you to run?

A    Well, as I say, it was my ultimate goal to run a second time.

Q    Ultimate goal? Shouldn’t your goal be to run and win the first time around?

A    I was a complete rookie the first time. I kind of picked up where the last guy left off at. I kind of picked up where Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Plemons left off and I think it kind of turned some people (off), though the things that I felt that I was saying were facts. I wouldn’t want to say it was mud-slinging but it was kind of like degrading him, so I’m trying to stay away from that. I’ve got 17 years in law enforcement in McLennan County, including nine and a half years as a Waco police officer and seven years as chief investigator of the McLennan County district attorney’s office and my other time was spent as police chief at McLennan Community College.

Q    How did your time working in the DA’s office prepare you to be sheriff?

A    I got a chance to learn from working with prosecutors just what they wanted in a case in order to go to court because no prosecutor wants to go to court knowing he’s going to lose the trial. He wants to make sure. He wants a 99 percent chance that he’s going to win the case. So I learned about in-depth investigations and how to really get the facts of the case because a lot of times they would have cases kicked back because they didn’t have enough information to go to court with.

Q    You’re in a pretty high-powered election race running against a retired deputy U.S. marshal who looks like he stepped out of a Western and a police spokesman with a long, 35-year career with the Waco Police Department who garnered a national profile during the Twin Peaks biker shootout last spring. Whatever else you can say about either of these gentlemen, they’re definitely in the here and now of law enforcement.

A    I’m confident in saying that my 17½ years of experience trumps theirs. The sheriff says he’s got 32 years and Swanton says he’s got 33 years. I mean, Swanton is still a sergeant after 33 years. He’s been in there long enough to be a captain by now. I’m not saying he’s dumb or anything — he might not have wanted to take the test — but he’s been there a long time. And the fact is the sheriff was an intermittent U.S. marshal, which means he was a security officer basically. When I was with the city as a patrol officer, I went as a first responder and did it all — accidents, traffic tickets, burglaries, murders. I got through all that, all the way through to the court. And I don’t think those basic steps in law enforcement have changed too much. Law enforcement is law enforcement. The laws haven’t changed drastically. Although you get more training and that’s enhanced as you go through your career, common sense in law enforcement is still the key.

Q    But the regulations are constantly changing, just as the laws are constantly changing. The Texas Legislature and the federal government and even the county are forever revisiting old issues and contending with new challenges. You don’t think your being out of the field, working as a substitute teacher and pastor, leaves you less prepared for the challenges of this office?

A    You have to catch up. But it’s not like I can’t. I mean, the sheriff didn’t have one ounce of Texas law enforcement when he was elected in 2012. I have more than he has right now. So what’s the difference? I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I still know how to do it. If you left this company and went with another company, doing the same thing, there might be some guidelines at another company that you would have to adjust to, but basically you know how to do the job.

Q    This “intermittent” charge was raised during the 2012 clash of campaigns. Parnell McNamara has repeatedly said the intermittent label meant only that he worked without benefits, not that he worked part-time. He has released badges and certificates that identify him as a deputy U.S. marshal.

A    Yes, and I’m aware that former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards introduced legislation [in 1993] to change that but it didn’t pass. Look, I’m not here to kick the man or throw any mud, but it was on paper that Chet Edwards tried to get these guys [Parnell McNamara and his brother Michael] instated as U.S. marshals before the 103rd Congress and they kicked it back. It didn’t happen. I guess I would ask why you stay 32 years on the job and don’t take no pension home. As I say, my law enforcement experience trumps that. And you talk about Twin Peaks? It never should have happened. I mean, this is very basic. In training, you are taught to defuse a situation. So when you say, “I knew they were coming. We knew they were coming,” the question suddenly becomes: What did you do to defuse the situation? I mean, that’s the common-sense factor. If you go to a family disturbance situation and it’s between the husband and wife, you separate them. Same thing on the broader stage (with something like Twin Peaks).

Q    Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman is on record as saying that all the bikers that day should have easily been able to see the Waco police presence in the parking lot.

A    It’s one thing to see them, but to see them in force is the question. The police should have been seen in force. I’m not just talking about a whole bunch of people showing up, I’m talking about the police directing traffic and making stops and checking folks’ ID and seeing if they got weapons, whatever, because we got the probable cause that something is going to happen. And so why sit there and watch it come? That’s not good police training at all. I think any police officer worth his badge will tell you that this never should have happened. It should have been defused, it should have been stopped. I can’t say it wouldn’t have happened somewhere else, but that day at Twin Peaks nine folks should have never died. And 17 others or more were injured and 177 people went to jail. It never should have happened. And another thing — with collective law enforcement, there ought to be more cooperation. And so the sheriff being top cop, he should have been able to talk to the chief. He should have said, “Chief, this ain’t going to look good for us. We need to do something about this.”

Q    At the McLennan County Republican Women’s candidate forum the other day, you talked about the need for law enforcement to take a greater role in actively preventing crime rather than just stepping in after the transgressions have happened. Isn’t that really the same thing as community policing, which Waco police say they do?

A    I wouldn’t say it’s so different. It’s really called crime prevention and we’ve had training in crime prevention, so we need to be aware and we need to make the folks we serve aware that we can have good communication. If you as John Q. Citizen see something, it doesn’t take much to get on the phone and say, “There’s something suspicious down here.” And we’re supposed to check that, not blow it off. Because then what got called in might happen.

Q    As Sheriff McNamara says, we’ve got some really bad guys out there involved in everything from human trafficking to peddling illicit drugs. He says the crime situation has changed and criminals have become a lot more sophisticated.

A    We still want to make sure these people are aware that we’re the police and, if we catch you in that business, you’re going to jail. We shouldn’t have any problem with that because a lot of law enforcement is preventive. You change the oil in your car to keep it from throwing a rod.

Q    For the past several years, we’ve seen a rise in tensions between African Americans and law enforcement. Each incident has its own circumstances, but it has led to a narrative that police need to refine their techniques in how they interact with people, whatever the color. You’re African American and obviously might have a different perspective than me. When you look at the different incidents of law enforcement and the African-American community — the situation involving 28-year-old Sandra Bland in Waller County, for instance — what can we do to improve this situation?

A    We need to train. Officers need sensitivity training. At times, officers are out there and run into situations that just aren’t in the basic training manual, so you’ve got to have some police community relations and you have to be able to relate. I first took this from a DPS officer. I don’t know his name, but the man impressed me so and it happened right here in East Waco. He stopped a guy on a traffic warrant. The guy was all loud and he was causing folks to gather. But that DPS officer never stopped doing his job. Every now and then he’d look up at the crowd. My partner and I drove up as a backup to him, but he never let that crowd bother him. He never spoke a harsh word and he never raised his voice. And I knew if something had gone on, that officer could handle that.

Q    In 2012 you more or less tied Parnell McNamara to the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, largely because one of his ancestors was in charge of law enforcement at the time. However, Parnell wasn’t even born till 1946.Was it fair to link him to what is an admittedly horrendous event that one of his ancestors may or may not have had something to do with?

A    Well, I wouldn’t bring it up now, but what I was trying to do is give history and the fact that this happened and the man didn’t do anything to stop it. We have things passed down in our families that we’re not proud of, but all I was trying to do was show cause. I was trying to get elected so I was trying to give all the information that I could give. Today I wouldn’t even say it. I’m past that.

Q    Given that this is the centennial of Jesse Washington’s death and many people are eager to commemorate the lynching, is there some broader point you’re trying to make?

A    I would hope, I would really hope, that we have come a long ways in reference to stuff like that, but in some instances, you haven’t gone too far. Here it is 2016 and in some instances it’s like you don’t need a rope. You can use a gun now. When I was a police officer, you had your .357 service revolver, you had a slapjack or rawhide. That’s what you dealt with. Now we got stun guns and all this stuff and there’s more people dying now than there was back then.

Q    Well, we had the 2014 case of 37-year-old Iretha Lilly, whom deputies used a stun gun on after she created a disturbance in a McLennan County courtroom. She died later in our jail. Is there a protocol you would recommend to prevent this?

A    God forbid that people die in situations (such as that), but I would have doubled that guard. You got to check more than 30 minutes apart. Fifteen minutes, for instance. She still could have died in the sheriff’s custody, but we at least would have been on record as doing everything we could do to ensure that the safety of that person, who was in our custody, prevailed. How much would it have cost us to make sure (Lilly was all right while in custody). We needed to pay closer attention.

Q    One thing you’ve done differently this time is change from Democrat to Republican for this run for sheriff. Several Democrats have done that in McLennan County, just so they can participate in local politics. You might call it “pay to play” since so many people around here vote strictly on party labels, not candidate merits. Is that your primary reason for switching or have you had some sort of change in political principles?

A    My philosophy is if you keep doing the same thing, you keep getting the same results. Now, Mr. McNamara got 67 percent of the vote and I got 29 (in 2012). I know there are some Republicans who voted for me, so where’s the Democrats? And when I started checking into the Republican Party, there were some views I could agree with and some I don’t agree with. But I began to see a better structure. And then Texas is a red state. You say pay to play? You kind of get with those who are going somewhere. So I would think if I’m a Republican, I can get Republicans to see my views. Being a Democrat, some Republicans might see my views but won’t vote for me (because of the party label) so I might get more Republicans to vote for me this time than I had Democrats vote for me last time. It’s a whole different field. I’ve been places now and been interviewed by people now who didn’t interview me when I was a Democrat. So it gives me a broader opportunity and when that opportunity comes, I want to take advantage of it.

Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.