Waco Police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, 54, spokesman for the police department who gained national prominence in last spring’s Twin Peaks shootout, is running for sheriff in the March 1 Republican primary election. Swanton has the endorsement of the Waco Police Association. He says he was first approached about running by people impressed with his communication skills and ability to handle a crisis after he handled press briefings in the chaotic aftermath of the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company on April 17, 2013.
Q You’ve lately served as information officer and spokesman for the Waco Police Department. So what prompts you to want to run for the post of county sheriff? The sheriff’s post is quite different in terms of protocol and culture.
A Without a doubt. But the No. 1 reason is because I love this community. I believe policing is more of a calling than a job. For me this has been a career. You know, somebody very wise told me, “Find a career where you enjoy going to work and you’ll never have to work a day the rest of your life.” And that’s been true for me. Certainly there have been good days and bad days. In 35 years of law enforcement, you’re going to have bad days. But I believe I have a lot to give to this community, and I want to continue giving to this community. I know that city policing is different from the sheriff’s office and, without a doubt, I’ve got a little bit of a learning curve there. But I’m ready for that challenge. I’m still young. I’m 54 years old, and I believe that my qualifications make me the best, the very best candidate, for this job.
Q You have a daughter who’s now in the—
A My daughter’s in the Waco Police Department. I will tell you that the first time she came in and approached us with that idea, told us that this is what she wanted to do, I was pretty excited about it. Mama, not so much. And then that first night that she actually came by in uniform — well, I knew it was real and then I was not so much excited about it. That’s when the worries set in.
Q And your daughter obviously tells you what’s going on in the streets now. I know you talked about your background the other day at the McLennan County Republican Women candidate forum. But you’re in police administration now. Do you see changes in the city? Are things more challenging on the streets of Waco than they were when you started out?
A Yeah, without a doubt. You know, I think the attitude toward law enforcement has changed throughout our country. For our community, not really so much. There is a little bit of that here, but policing in and of itself has changed. Technology has changed. The way that we communicate and deal with our public has changed. And that’s one thing that I found in law enforcement work — that if you don’t keep up with that and you don’t train every day and you don’t continue to go to courses and classes and education, you’re behind the curve. And that’s one thing I think you’ll see with my training record. Throughout my entire career, I have over 3,800 hours of law enforcement training. That is going and sitting in class. I’m a negotiator. I have a basic, intermediate and advanced certificate in hostage negotiation. And I know you think I’m in administration, but that’s not necessarily true. The good thing with my position is that the chief trusts me enough to do my job and do what you need to do. Part of that is being out in the community as well. I still go out and teach classes. I teach at Baylor University. I go out and give presentations to groups. I go out and ride with our traffic unit. Every once in a while I’ll try to grab Assistant Police Chief Ryan Holt and we’ll go out and do a “tweet-along” — or a virtual ride-along — as I call them. I like patrol work. I got my start actually working the streets. Did that for about 14 years total. So I don’t consider myself administration, especially being over our hostage negotiation team. We still do call-outs, we still do training, and I like getting out there on the streets.
Q The past few years we’ve been inundated with controversial police shootings nationwide. It seems like a bad time to be in law enforcement. What can police do to improve attitudes about all this?
A Well, I think you need to look specifically at what you just talked about — police shootings. Barring the one incident that we can’t talk about — that our attorneys believe we can’t talk about [the May 17 Twin Peaks shootings] — as a rule we’re transparent about what has happened. We’re immediate about what happens. I run our Facebook page, our social media page, our Twitter account. Soon as I get to a scene, we’re promptly trying to put out information and inform our public — sometimes even before I tell y’all [at the Trib]. I know you don’t like that, but I think the public can get it a little bit quicker if we don’t have a go-between on some things. And I think what you see with our officer-involved shootings is we didn’t have issues here because our community trusts us, they believe in us, and they respect us.
Q Doesn’t it have something to do with the Waco Police Department protocol also?
A I think without a doubt we have one of the finest trained police forces in the state of Texas. We have good quality officers here. I think you’ll find that with any organization, group or entity where you have people involved, there are going to be individuals who go astray. We’ve had that. I’ve had to work those cases. Hated it. Probably the worst part of my career was putting one of our own officers in jail. Hated doing that. But you know what? Our community expects that. If we can’t police our own, then we don’t need to be trying to police the citizens — and that’s what we did.
Q There’s talk nowadays about the so-called militarization of law enforcement and whether it’s necessary.
A Yeah, but I think you have to look at where we are as a society today. Society has changed. Criminals have changed. I can tell you that when I first came out on the streets in 1980, we worried about a dope dealer on the street corner possibly carrying a little Raven .25. Today they’re carrying Glocks. Today they’re carrying .45s. They’re carrying semi-autos. They’re carrying AK-47s in their cars. We have to be very cautious to balance that. But one difference you’ll see between me and the opposition for the position that I’m running for is I’m very community-oriented and I think that the opposition touts how “we throw people in jail.” Or, “Our arrests are up 300 or 400 percent.” That’s a little bit of a fear tactic.
Q You’re talking about the sheriff saying that?
A Yeah, you’re seeing an increase, but a lot of those warrants are Class C warrants. And I think we can do better than just throw people in jail. I think we need more community policing. I think how you gain the respect of this community is policing with a heart and that’s what I’ve done. One thing I’ve always tried to do in my law enforcement career is treat people that I’m dealing with like I would want law enforcement to treat my mom and dad. Or my sister. Or my daughter. And I think you can do that. You have to police with compassion today or you’re going to fall too deeply into that sole perspective of, “We got guns and we got tanks and we got helicopters and we got new rifles.” I mean, yes, we do have to have these to be able to match up with the criminal element today, but I don’t think that’s necessarily something we should be bragging about.
Q I wouldn’t normally think to raise this question except that a year or two ago we had some trust issues develop between the Waco Police Department and District Attorney Abel Reyna. But it is a relevant question. Does the police department find the sheriff’s department a cooperative and competent force to deal with when your duties increasingly overlap?
A The frontline men and women of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and Waco Police Department work very well together. I certainly see some things I will do different in the leadership position in my role as sheriff. I don’t believe in policing inside the city limits unless we’re asked to do so. I don’t think you come into a neighboring agency city and set up camp and try to increase your warrant numbers. And that’s happening now. I believe you need to have your deputies out in the areas where there isn’t law enforcement. I think our citizens deserve that. We have good police forces here in Waco. We have good police forces in Hewitt and Woodway and Robinson. If they need help, absolutely, I think we need to be there for them. Otherwise, we need to be out in the unincorporated areas where there is no law enforcement. And that’s where our deputies need to be.
Q During the McLennan County Republican Women’s candidate forum the other day you cited a large number of assignments and duties you’ve had with the Waco Police Department. Is there one of these many assignments and duties you would say is pivotal in what you hope to be doing in January 2017?
A I’d say 35 years of real law enforcement experience — and what I mean by that is that every step that I’ve taken has prepared me for the challenge of being McLennan County sheriff. I have a wide range of very diverse backgrounds in law enforcement. I’ve been to two supervisory schools. I’ve been to an FBI leadership school and a college management institute school in Dallas. I think everything that I’ve done in 35 years prepares me for where I’m going next. And, you know, if you ask about the SWAT team or the DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program, I think all these have contributed to what I am today. And I think that’s instrumental because I am so diverse in my law enforcement background — everything from street cop to teacher of DARE to hostage negotiator to SWAT operator.
Q You have made some statements suggesting that your chief opponent got his job as a deputy U.S. marshal partly because of family connections and that in many instances he was more of a glorified bailiff. Do you want to explain what you mean by these concerns?
A Absolutely. I think if you look at the two, compare what I call real street law enforcement experience — working calls, working bank robberies, working bar fights, working car crashes — I’ve done all that. Mr. McNamara hasn’t done that. Certainly what he did was an important part of what he did. He was a bailiff, he transported criminals from Point A to Point B. Somebody needs to do that. That was Mr. McNamara’s job. That is not real frontline law enforcement work.
Q The sheriff is very proud of his work regarding the 1992 capture of serial killer Kenneth Allen McDuff.
A Kenneth Allen McDuff was not arrested by Parnell McNamara. Mr. McNamara went and transported Kenneth Allen McDuff back to Waco. He was arrested off the back of a trash truck in Kansas City, Missouri. He [McNamara] had absolutely nothing to do with arresting that man and I think that’s called embellishment. He’s a good salesman. I think he embellished a little bit on some things and it’s hard to backtrack once you do that. I’m not going to do that. If I didn’t do something, I’m going to tell you I didn’t do it. If I did something, I’ll tell you I did it and I’m going to be proud of it and I’m going to stick with what I have done.
Q What’s something you see changing on your very first day as sheriff? That is, what will be your priorities?
A I think one of the first things is getting deputies back out in the county where they belong, where there is not law enforcement at present. The response time right now to calls out in the county is not good. I can tell you from personal experience that they’re answering some calls over the phone. And I don’t think we ought to be doing that. I think you need to have a deputy out knocking on doors and showing up at your house if you call.
Q Where are those county deputies now?
A They’re in the city limits of Waco trying to arrest people on warrants because it’s all about numbers. I think percentages — and y’all know as well as I do — percentages and numbers can say anything. But that’s not the real story about what’s going on. So I want to get deputies back out, I want to provide some stability in that organization. In three years, he [McNamara] has lost a chief deputy who was his best friend, who left because of reasons that he talked about to your reporters. [Matt Cawthon in October 2014 refused to confirm or deny rumors that he and McNamara disagreed over discipline of staff with Cawthon citing only “basic philosophical differences in police management.”] He has lost a senior captain over the jail that was probably one of the best law enforcement officials in this community. Another captain resigned because of disciplinary issues that were not being addressed and then a third captain had to be demoted because he was not effective in doing his job. There’s no stability there. And one thing I want to bring back is stability.
Q So what is causing that instability?
A I think it’s the lack of leadership from the current sheriff. I think Mr. McNamara doesn’t let people do their job as they’ve been trained to do. He can’t make up his mind. I think the first thing he said is he wanted to be a frontline lawman. The last time that he talked I think he talked about, “Well, I’m an administrator too now.” Well, you know, which one is it? You’ve got to be able to trust your organization enough and I think he’s got good people there who will make decisions, and you’ve got to allow your executive staff to help you lead. And I don’t think that’s occurring in that organization. My goal would be to let people help lead that organization. Where I want to leave it, whether it’s in four years or eight years or 12 years, is as an organization that can run itself without me being there.
Q What makes you think you’re going to be qualified to handle the amount of money for the jail and the different departments?
A Oh, without a doubt, that would be a huge learning curve for me. But that’s where you surround yourself with good quality key people who help you learn it and you learn and you learn every piece of the puzzle and you make it fit. I think there are some things that we can do to save our taxpayers’ money. I think our citizens need to question why we don’t have an officer from the sheriff’s department involved with the U.S. Marshals Task Force. I think that would be a huge savings to be able to get an officer in there and work side by side with them. You free up some of your people who are in an organized crime unit who are now serving warrants to be able to go back to patrol. I think that would be of benefit to our citizens and you’ve got a huge amount of resources when you work in partnership with the U.S. Marshals Task Force.
Interview condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.