Edinburg fills asst. police chief post after 2-month vacancy

Edinburg Assistant Chief Juan Hernandez talks with other police officers after his swearing in at Edinburg City Hall on Monday, Mar. 11, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — Police Chief Cesar Torres appointed Juan “Jay” Hernandez to assistant chief of police Monday just days after the union voted down the chief’s proposal to hire externally for the position.

Hernandez, 40, previously served as a police officer-III, having joined the Edinburg Police Department 10 years ago. He began his law enforcement career in 1998 as a detention officer for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and worked as an investigative sergeant for the Hidalgo Police Department prior to joining the Edinburg agency.

The chief’s appointment, which Hernandez called a surprise, came after the Edinburg United Police Officers Association voted 76-28 during a March 8 meeting not to amend the association’s Meet and Confer agreement with the city. The chief was in favor of amending the agreement in order to allow him to appoint someone from outside the department.

Hernandez, who served as the police union president, stepped down from the post Monday because the association traditionally prohibits the president from being a high ranking officer, such as an assistant chief of police.

“I got the call today to meet the chief for lunch,” Hernandez said at his swearing-in ceremony Monday. “I thought it was just lunch, and it was more than lunch.”

He will serve alongside Assistant Chief Peter De La Garza, 61, the longest serving member of the Edinburg Police Department who joined in 1978.

In a department that traditionally has had two assistant police chiefs, Torres — who took office in January — had been without a second chief for approximately two months.

“My focus at the beginning was to find someone from the outside to bring new ideas, a new person — just like me — from the outside,” Torres said. “That didn’t happen, so there’s no doubt we selected the perfect fit to relieve the agency in the role of an assistant chief.”

City Manager Juan Guerra hired Torres, a former Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant, in December 2018 after Guerra demoted former chief David White to lieutenant over Guerra’s dissatisfaction with the city’s public safety rankings.

White’s demotion was one of Guerra’s first moves after the Edinburg City Council, on which Mayor Richard Molina has a majority faction, hired Guerra in October 2018.

Torres’ first few months on the job have not been without criticism, especially after it became public he himself was demoted for misconduct during his time with DPS, which he acknowledged during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony.

“It is of no surprise to anyone who reads the paper or watches the news that our department has been tested and criticized,” Torres said before introducing Hernandez. “I want you all to know that in a progressive department we take this scrutiny seriously and take responsibility to address our challenges and our shortcomings. The plain truth is that no one is harder on the city of Edinburg Police Department than itself.”

According to sources with knowledge of the matter, few high-ranking officers were eyeing the open assistant chief position in a department they believe to be too close with city leaders under Molina’s leadership.

The chief, however, said Hernandez was more than qualified to serve as the department’s second-in-command.

“Anyone with a good attitude, a positive attitude, can make a great assistant chief,” Torres said. “That’s got nothing to do with tenure … it’s got to do with having that explosive, open mindset …”

Explosive, open-minded and energetic were a few of the ways Torres described Hernandez during the ceremony, telling those in attendance, “He’s ready to work … he’s got that drive that I’m looking for in an assistant chief so that we can motivate our officers, our supervisors, even more.”

Hernandez’s appointment also comes amid the department’s investigation into his half-brother, Michael Balderas, an Edinburg Economic Development Corporation employee. The Association of Texas Professional Educators filed a report with police in January accusing Balderas of stealing at least $20,000 in funds during his leadership of ATPE’s local chapter.

When asked whether there would be any conflict of interest on his part with regard to the ongoing investigation, Hernandez said, “No, not at all,” adding that the chief would oversee it.

The Edinburg United Police Officers Association could vote on a new president as early as Tuesday.