Kempner City Hall
Jeromiah Lizama

The Kempner police chief on Wednesday said the small town could suffer by a lack of officers after recent actions by the City Council and mayor that reduced the number of officers on the force from four to two, including the chief.

“It’s hard for me to comprehend what has happened; it just blows me away,” said Forrest Spence, Kempner police chief. “We just lost half the force so it’s going to be hard. We won’t be able to accomplish the mission.”

Two of the department’s full-time paid officers were laid off and given two weeks notice at the May 8 council meeting, leaving the department with two paid officers including the chief.

The two officers who were recently laid off were intending on staying on the force as volunteers, an option Spence says the mayor tried to dissolve with a directive on Monday.

“That’s the kind of guys they are,” Spence said. “They still want to go out and help the community.”

Carolyn Crane, Kempner’s mayor, told the Herald on Tuesday that the decision about whether to allow volunteer officers was “under discussion” and would be on the next council meeting agenda for May 22. She added that she hoped the city’s economic development in the future would allow for officers to be added back to the force.

“The directive basically said the unpaid officers were to turn in their equipment by Monday afternoon,” Spence said. He said he gave her a copy of the local government code and a city ordinance that the directive violated.

“That’s when she had it put on the agenda,” Spence said. “It was an unlawful directive that I did not follow. She wanted all four unpaid officers off the force.”

The two officers who were fired were reserve, unpaid officers before being hired on in October 2017, when the police force doubled to include the chief and three paid officers.

He said it is important to the two officers who were fired to remain on the force as unpaid officers because it would enable them to continue their commission. The U.S. Marshal’s office hired the officers as part-time help.

“Both men work as security officers for the U.S. Marshals in Waco at the courthouse, so if they lose their commission that would stop any money from coming in (to them),” Spence said.

The mayor said the decision to reduce the department was based entirely on city finances.

Kempner also has two other unpaid officer volunteers, and Spence said the mayor wants to get rid of them, too, for financial reasons.

Those two volunteers do cost the city money because of the city equipment they use, Crane said earlier this week.

However, Spence said that the city has not been burdened financially by the unpaid police officers. One unpaid officer uses a departmental weapon that is one of five purchased over a year ago and the other uses his own weapon, he said.

“The city has not had to purchase anything for the officers. Most of it they already had purchased,” Spence said. “If anything, the officers donate hours and equipment back to the department.”

Spence said the issue between the police department and the mayor began when he received a Department of Justice grant for around $1,200 to purchase vests capable of stopping rifle bullets. The city would have had to match but declined, he said.

“People out here are armed with rifles, mostly,” Spence said. “In this day and age we have too many officers being killed with rifles.”

He added that he was not informed in advance about the reduction in his force. “The only thing that was mentioned as a possibility was a slight reduction in officers’ hours.”

Changes ahead

“The officers who were fired are suffering, but it will be citizens who will suffer the most,” Spence said. “Protecting citizens is one of the main purposes of government.”

Spence also expressed concern about officer safety because of the downsized force. “Having overlapping shifts would put two guys out in the field,” he said. But with the reduction, Spence does not have that option.

The Lampasas County Sheriff’s Department has more deputies on patrol at night, and the two agencies help each other.

“The county is short, too, at times,” Spence said. He said Kempner officers have covered many calls for the sheriff’s department.

Spence said citizens might see an increase in property crimes because of fewer officers visible on patrol. “Officers being seen is preventative,” he said.

Additionally, big city problems can infiltrate small towns like Kempner.

“Narcotics are a huge problem, the root of all evil as far as crime goes,” he said. “It was a big problem for years, and we’re trying to clean up the town.”

He said Kempner long has had a reputation as a speed trap.

“Before I got here it was a traffic-based department, focused on traffic enforcement but I think police departments should be the full deal, and traffic is part of it,” Spence said. “We try to do thorough, proactive policing and work within the community. Our job isn’t to generate revenue but to protect residents.”

One of the grievances filed April 7 by a Texas Municipal Police Association representative against the mayor is on behalf of Spence and four officers, Spence declined to comment.

Spence said he is expecting quite a few people to attend the next council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. A workshop about the city’s infrastructure spending will start at 6:40 p.m.

The mayor was unavailable for comment on Wednesday afternoon.

emilys@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7552

Emily Hilley-Sierzchula is reporter for the Killeen Daily Herald. Reach her at emilys@kdhnews.com

Herald reporter

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