For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed three police chiefs about the weeklong weather emergency in Texas: Irving Chief Jeff Spivey, San Antonio Chief William McManus, and Houston Chief Art Acevedo.

Key Takeaways

-- With other government agencies and private service providers closed, police officers are stepping up to fill the critical needs in the community – everything from delivering meals from food banks to homebound residents, transporting people to shelters, taking patients to medical appointments, distributing water, etc.

-- Calls for service have increased in some areas, with many of the calls involving reports of power outages or “check on the welfare.”

-- Most crimes have dropped, with the exception of commercial burglaries. Reports of traffic crashes have also increased, and police are having to manage road closures.

-- Police are staffing shelters and warming centers, a job that is complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

-- With many officers’ homes without power and water, agencies are putting up officers in hotels and offering other accommodations so they can stay on duty.


Irving Chief Jeff Spivey

This started last Thursday when we had an ice storm come through, so we’ve been dealing with the weather for the last seven days. I know everyone saw the news about the 135-car, 6-fatality pileup in Fort Worth on Thursday morning. That kicked off this winter storm.

On Sunday we got about 5 inches of snow. The temperatures dropped to -2 degrees Tuesday morning, and later Tuesday it got up to maybe 10 or 11 degrees above zero. We’re used to the heat and the occasional tornado or thunderstorm, but a winter storm like this is really unprecedented. At one point, all 254 counties in the state were under a winter weather warning.

It really brought our city to a halt. Texas has its own power grid, and the demand on power basically overrode the grid. At one point we had half our city without power in zero-degree temperatures. We had to open two warming shelters, and we have police officers assigned 24 hours a day there. We have police officers driving shuttle vans to transport people to these shelters so they don’t freeze to death.

Over the past four days, our 9-1-1 calls have doubled compared to this time last year. The types of calls are dramatically different. We’re up about 300% on the number of “check well-being” calls from someone who hasn’t heard from a neighbor or relative. I think that demonstrates how dire this is.


One of the things we had to consider was what we would do with COVID patients. How do we handle people who are diagnosed with COVID, have no water or electricity, and have nowhere else to go? How do we keep them safe and everyone else in the shelter safe? We’ve had to designate special areas for people who are COVID-positive or think they might be. 

Our patrol and dispatch are already on 12-hour shifts, so we didn’t really change the shifts. We reached out to some of our local hotels to negotiate a price for any of our first responders who wanted to stay in hotels, because most of our employees live outside the city. And we set up cots around the department in empty offices and storage areas so personnel could sleep in there. Our police association opened up their hall and filled it with cots so people could sleep there.

The Office of Emergency Management reports to me. My emergency management staff has been working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They take turns taking naps at our Emergency Operations Center. They’ve managed the resources we need and made sure we’ve addressed water leaks, street issues, and gotten sand where it’s needed. It’s been all hands on deck.

I tweeted out a shout-out to my people for the resilience they’ve shown, and their willingness to sleep here and basically live here since Sunday. Like everyone else, their houses are without power, their water is frozen, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with their family members. Yet they’re still showing up here to serve their community. That’s the heart of service and what makes police officers such a special group.


San Antonio Chief William McManus

A good part of San Antonio has been without power. We were expecting rolling brown-outs, but they were done in a very inconsistent way, with no rhyme or reason for the amount of time people were without electricity. You would get portions of the city where people were out of power for a day, two days, or three days. In other parts of the city you’d get people with power for an hour, then without power for five hours, then it’d come back for five minutes. It was all over the place.

Then the water supply started to diminish, and a lot of people are without water. The San Antonio Water System is distributing water at certain locations throughout the city, but that water has to be taken home and boiled before it can be used. So our utilities have been in bad shape since Sunday.

We’ve been inundated with calls for crashes on the highways and streets. We’ve been working with the Texas Department of Transportation to close and unclose roads as they freeze and unfreeze.

We find ourselves delivering food, picking people up and taking them to their dialysis appointments, picking people up who are wheelchair-bound and taking them to their doctor’s appointments, buying baby formula for people, and distributing food. We’re working with the San Antonio Food Bank to take meals to people who simply cannot get out of their houses. We’re kind of doing it all.

A lot of our downtown and traffic units have been working 12-hour shifts to keep the highways open or shut and helping folks get to the warming shelters.

Our police headquarters has power, but we’ve lost water. So there’s not a whole lot going on at police headquarters right now. The six substations have maintained power and water.

You can look at our mobile CAD screen on any given day and there are a lot of calls holding. During this weather event we hardly have any. Our crime-related calls for service are down, but calls for service where the police are being relied on to assist in other ways have increased.

We’ve opened the convention center for people who need to get out of their houses because there’s no water and/or heat. We’re staffing that, and we are taking the same COVID precautions as we do during regular times. We’re giving people masks if they come in without a mask.

The last time we had snow like this was back in the 1980s, before my arrival. They haven’t seen anything like this for that long. We don’t have plow trucks, or sand, or salt trucks. The city essentially became paralyzed. A lot of our crosstown freeways are elevated, and they freeze immediately once the temperature hits freezing and there’s precipitation. By next week it’s supposed to go back up to 70 degrees, so hopefully we’re on the tail end of this.

I see our role as doing anything that can help the public in this time of crisis. I’m very proud of the work the police department has done here.


Houston Chief Art Acevedo

When this first started Sunday, we were told to expect rolling blackouts by design. So blackouts would be anywhere from an hour to three hours, and they’d rotate neighborhoods. By Monday we were told that there weren’t going to be rolling blackouts, because we were actually going to have large-scale power outages. Over 1.5 million people in Houston were without power. Starting Wednesday, they were able to restore power for many people, but there are still 100,000-200,000 people without power. And we’re still looking at rolling blackouts.

Sunday night at 10 p.m., the Texas Department of Transportation told us that they had no more barricades to shut down freeways and were out of the chemicals to treat roadways. Houston has a lot of elevated roadways, and they freeze very quickly. From Sunday night through Wednesday night, we had a lot of roadway closures. We put out a lot of messaging telling people to stay off the roads, and they did. It was a ghost town around here the last few nights.

Because roadways were pretty treacherous, a lot of our officers ended up staying in the stations. We started getting them hotel rooms, and they were sleeping everywhere they could in the stations. But we lost power at our stations, and our backup generators, which we test every month, started failing. As generators failed, we had to move to other locations where generators were working, at least minimally. And we lost water pretty much citywide, so we ended up with no toilets. We still have no working toilets or showers in the entire department, except headquarters.

Restaurants have been closed all week, and food stores have been closed or quickly sold out of everything. That created another set of problems. Trying to feed our people has been nearly impossible, but we’ve managed. We have MREs, and we found a church with its kitchen open that we could hire.

Many people’s homes, mine included, have burst pipes. But our personnel are at work, not at home with their families. It’s been a really trying week.

Crime has slowed down. We have a problem with traffic safety in this state, but we’ve only had one fatal crash since Sunday night at 6 p.m., because people are staying off the roadways. After things slowed down the first couple nights, burglaries started going up. We deployed everybody in black-and-whites with their lights on to reduce that. We did not have looting, because we had a heavy, targeted presence across the city.

Over 800 people are housed at the George R. Brown Convention Center, primarily homeless people. Our Homeless Outreach Teams go out in the city and transport folks to the convention center. The mayor limited capacity to 800, so then we opened other centers. So we’ve been in the transportation business, and we’ve had to provide security for the shelters.

As people came into the shelters, they were screened for fevers and asked a series of questions by our health department. Those who were suspected to have COVID were placed in an isolation area. We’re aware of about 12 exposure deaths, and you can’t let people sit outside and freeze. We’ve had several carbon monoxide poisonings. And now we’re delivering water to seniors and other places, because the city’s water system continues to be down.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.