LAKE DALLAS — The Lake Dallas City Council voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate its dispatch and jail operations. The council also voted to purchase major equipment upgrades to the city’s police department and four new police vehicles.
Lake Dallas now will contract with Denton County for dispatch services and with the Town of Little Elm for the jail. Police Chief Dan Carolla, who’s been on the job since November, said the changes will be less expensive for the city, safer for the officers and provide better service to the residents.
Lake Dallas will pay just over $350,000 in five annual payments for the vehicles and equipment and save about $225,000 per year by contracting out dispatch and jail services.
The savings from eliminating the dispatch and jail services will offset the cost of purchasing the new police vehicles and equipment, City Manager Matt Shaffstall said.
The Lake Dallas Police Department is running three police cars nonstop because of mechanical failures in the fleet, Carolla said in a presentation to the council. The cars have no computers, which Carolla said he has never seen in his career, which began in 1999. Officers receive only limited information from the radio and have no contact with surrounding police departments.
“My biggest concern is that we have an officer who either hits their emergency beacon, or the only thing they can get into the radio is ‘help me,’ and we don’t know where they’re at,” Carolla said. “Right now, we are completely in the dark, so that’s not good.”
The city has no jailers and no medical staff on-site, and the fire department responded to 41 medical calls at the jail in 2016, Carolla said. The jail and communications center is staffed by one person who answers 911 calls, dispatches officers, monitors prisoners and works the public access window facing the lobby at City Hall.
“This is not a multitasking job. The public should never have direct access to the person answering the lifeline,” Carolla said. “I don’t think that we should put somebody on hold answering 911 to give somebody a camping pass. This bothers me greatly.”
Little Elm’s jail is modern and fully staffed, Carolla said, and Denton County contracts with multiple cities and towns using state-of-the-art communications technology.
Carolla was hired to replace Nick Ristagno, who served simultaneously as police chief and city manager until he was replaced by Shaffstall in July.
Mayor Michael Barnhart attributed the problems to the previous administration’s inaction and the advice of Ristagno that the city couldn’t afford to fix the police department's aging equipment and facilities.
“It was the decisions that [Ristagno] made that we didn’t really need [changes] at that time,” Barnhart said. “People get complacent. Now we have some fresh eyes on it.”
When a Lake Dallas officer arrives to the jail with a prisoner, they enter through a back door without a sally port. The officer must remove his or her gun when entering the jail and place it in a box. And at Lake Dallas, they are alone with the prisoner during this process.
“If we have a fight or an escape attempt, this could be a significant problem for us,” Carolla said. “It’s not a matter of it; it’s a matter of when.”
Carolla said it would take six trained jailers to properly staff the city’s jail. The city currently has zero, which leaves the city open to liability problems.
Carolla cited several cases in which prisoners have died while in custody that resulted in million-dollar settlements and criminal charges, including the death of Sandra Bland, who died in a Waller County Jail cell in 2015.
“Our current jail practices, I’m just going to be honest with you, they’re not good,”Carolla said. “I don’t agree with the way we’re dealing with prisoners.”