‘We’re all in this together’

By Kenda Culpepper
TDCAA President & Criminal District Attorney in Rockwall County

As I write this, I am acutely aware that almost anything I write today about dealing with the COVID-19 virus crisis will be far outdated by the time this is published. Everything is evolving so quickly—things change from day to day. But one thing won’t change and will be just as important today as tomorrow. Communication is key, and it is more vital than ever that prosecutors are talking to one another. We are all in this together, and we need to use the resources of TDCAA—and all of our colleagues—to make this new system work in the midst of a pandemic.

            TDCAA has been hard at work to push out information to prosecutors and staff across the state. The TDCAA Board recently met by video conference to discuss the COVID-19 crisis and how to continue effectively communicating with and among Texas prosecutors. Here are some of the ways that is happening.

COVID-19 updates

Shannon Edmonds at TDCAA has been emailing updates on COVID-19 throughout this crisis. These include so much valuable information about a host of different legal issues regarding state and county responses to the virus situation. They include a summary of events to date; quarantine enforcement; a list of the various Court of Criminal Appeals’s Emergency Orders and Governor’s Orders; discussions regarding open meetings, deadlines, bond issues, video conferences, various helpful motions, and the like.

            If you are not receiving these regular updates, please go to www.tdcaa.com/covid-19-information to catch up on the latest. Electeds, please share those emails with staff and others who need the information.

            Additionally, TDCAA Executive Director Rob Kepple and his staff are staying up-to-date on many of the issues prosecutor offices are facing. They are an amazing resource for information and can also send you in the right direction for other answers.

Regional video conferences

Each region in the state has elected a TDCAA director to represent it. These regional directors join the Executive Board and some committee chairs to form the TDCAA Board. The regions are on the map, below.

The directors are:

            Region 1: Leslie Standerfer, Wheeler County Attorney (Wheeler)
            Region 2: Hardy Wilkerson, 118th Judicial District Attorney (Big Spring)
            Region 3: Ricky Thompson, 32nd Judicial District Attorney (Sweetwater)
            Region 4: Chilo Alaniz, 49th Judicial District Attorney (Laredo)
            Region 5: Bob Wortham, Jefferson County Criminal District Attorney (Beaumont)
            Region 6: Greg Willis, Collin County Criminal District Attorney (McKinney)
            Region 7: Sharen Wilson, Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney (Fort Worth)
            Region 8: Natalie Cobb Koehler, Bosque County Attorney (Meridian)

During the last TDCAA Board meeting, I asked all regional directors to schedule video conferences with the elected prosecutors in their regions. I had hoped that it would be an opportunity to reach prosecutors across the state, talk about common issues, and discuss questions and solutions, but I could never have imagined how successful those forums continue to be. Rob Kepple and I are currently participating in a different regional forum almost every day, and I leave every one amazed at how much information is shared. I learn something new every time!

            For example, I originally fashioned how my office does Zoom hearings after listening to prosecutors in McLennan, Donley, Collin, and Nolan Counties. I changed how I was scheduling my staff working remotely after listening to people in Travis, Williamson, and Midland Counties. I was able to work out a process for communicating with prosecutors in my own Region 6 (North Texas) when we needed to assure the safe transport or detention of a defendant with a history of violence or serious criminal history. The forums highlight that Texas prosecutors are facing similar issues and can productively share solutions.  

            However, it has also been interesting to see our differences. In one of my earlier President’s Columns, I talked about how individual regions face issues unique to their areas. The state of Texas is so big! We are like several different states in one; I love the joke about how you know you are in Texas if you think of distance in hours rather than miles. So while we can always come together and talk about the ways we are the same, it is also valuable to come together and talk about what issues we can solve as a region. No one understands border issues like those counties on the southern border. No one understands vast rural distances like the Panhandle and West Texas. The coastal counties have issues unlike North Texas. So while the regional video conferences have discussed so many of the same issues, each has had at least one specific to its region. The south border talked about the legality of checkpoints. Central Texas prosecutors talked about the safety of storm shelters during tornado season. The Panhandle discussed continuing Zoom hearings into the future—they see Zoom’s value because their jurisdictions are so spread out. The larger urban counties in each region have been helpful to every conversation because they start seeing issues earlier and can therefore prepare the smaller jurisdictions for problems to come. It has been a fascinating process.  

            If you are an elected prosecutor and haven’t participated in one of these forums, I encourage you to. They last about an hour, and you can be as interactive or as quiet as you choose. If you haven’t received an invitation to join, please contact your regional director. We want to get everyone involved because you still have plenty of time to engage. I am hopeful that the forums will continue throughout this crisis and beyond. We will see new and novel issues rear their heads throughout the phases of this situation, and we must communicate regarding how to effectively handle them.

Reach out to others

The third way to communicate is to personally reach out to your colleagues across the state for help. I have—a lot. Throughout my involvement in TDCAA, I have made incredible friendships among individual prosecutors state-wide. People I learn with, people I laugh with, and people I trust. Over the years, I have often picked up the phone to discuss an issue I am struggling with, but no more so than I have in the last weeks.

            I have talked to folks in Travis, Kaufman, and Cass Counties about the state health authority. I have talked to people in Jim Wells County about quarantine orders and El Paso County about hotel contracts for first responders. Montgomery County and Galveston County helped me with price gouging issues. I discussed “safe at home” orders with Dallas and Comal Counties, I talked to Ellis, Brazos, and Dawson Counties about enforcement issues. And we have all used Harris County’s resources. These are only a few of the friends and resources I have reached out to during this time.

            There is no reason to start from scratch on an issue if someone has already found a solution. In addition, I am sure that each of these same people would welcome the opportunity to discuss their own issues with you. And, remember, sometimes you just need to talk to someone you trust who can make you laugh in the face of a difficult situation, someone who understands and can prop you up when you are bone-weary or frustrated. We need those relationships to keep us sane.

            That is one of the great values of TDCAA: putting people together to make good decisions. Take advantage of the relationships you have built while networking at TDCAA events, courses, and video conferences, and pick up the phone or send an email when you need something.

Closing

This has been, and continues to be, an unprecedented time for all of us, including prosecutors. We have had to learn how to work remotely and write a declaration of disaster. We have dealt with the best ways to reduce jail populations in a manner that is responsible and keeps the rest of our communities safe. We have found ways to run grand juries, electronically file cases, and communicate with police agencies, judges, witnesses, and lawyers by video conferences. And in the midst of all of it, we have kept our offices running, reviewed and filed cases, and dealt with the fears of the people around us.

            I wonder if the practice of law will ever be the same? Will we start running more meetings by video? Will we work more from home? Will we always make sure our maintenance departments keep a good stock of toilet paper? Who knows? But I do hope that we continue to talk and use each other as resources. That has been a bright light in the midst of this difficult interval.

            I will never forget this time in my life. But I hope to remember it not by the chaos but by the relationships I have built in the midst of that chaos. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact TDCAA at 512/474-2436 or me at [email protected] I stand ready to communicate and collaborate with you.

            Stay safe and healthy!