When police in the movies say, “We’re going to clean up this town,” it’s only a metaphor. For Granite Shoals Police Officer Chris Cowan, it’s his literal job.
Along with regular patrol duties, Cowan is tasked with investigating environmental crimes, typically excessive trash and debris on a property or illegal dumping.
“There’s no reason Granite Shoals shouldn’t be the jewel of the Highland Lakes,” he said about keeping the city tidy.
City Manager Jeff Looney has made cleaning up properties in the city a priority. The first step toward that was putting Police Chief Gary Boshears in charge of the code compliance department.
“The code compliance does a great job,” Boshears said, “but they really only handle the civil side of this. Some of the situations are at the criminal level.”
In June 2019, Boshears hired Cowan, who, at the time, was a Burnet County deputy constable focused on environmental crimes. Cowan began his law enforcement career in 1999 in Florida before joining the Marble Falls Police Department. He eventually took a job with the Travis County Fire Marshal’s office, where he saw the impact environmental crimes have on a community. In 2018, he returned to Burnet County as the Precinct 4 deputy constable.
As Granite Shoals’ environmental crimes officer, Cowan prefers to educate rather than arrest those violating city ordinances on excessive trash and debris.
“The last thing we want to do is charge someone and have to arrest them,” he said. “Our biggest thing is education first. The ultimate goal is cleanup.”
His chief agreed.
“That’s really the goal of it,” Boshears added. “We want it cleaned up and really improve the quality of life for residents. Nobody wants to live next to places with trash piled up, a bunch of old cars sitting there, and this like that.
“We really just want compliance,” the chief added. “And Officer Cowan will work with people.”
In the past year, the city has cleared about 1,000 code violations, meaning those residents and businesses came into compliance. Much of that, Boshears said, was just letting people know there was an issue.
Cowan pointed out that people sometimes don’t realize how bad the situation has become because they see the same piles of trash and debris every day. Other issues might be smaller in scale but dangerous, such as a lead-based car battery sitting on the ground. The lead from it can leach into the soil and affect water quality in the immediate area as well as downstream.
In cases like that, Cowan is also a guardian of the Colorado River basin and nearby aquifers.
“Anything up here that ends up in the water goes downstream,” he said.
If Cowan determines a property is in violation of the law, he’ll issue a 45-day notice to the owner to clean it up. In some situations, trash and debris have piled up over months and even years, and the owner can’t be expected to fix the problem overnight.
Cowan is there to help.
“I work with them,” he said.
That includes pointing them to the resources they need to properly and safely clean up their properties.
“What Officer Cowan does is help them find the place to take those things or how to get rid of them,” Capt. Chris Decker said.
And if the property isn’t in compliance after the 45 days are up?
“If they’re making progress, and they’re working with me, I’m going to work with them,” Decker said.
Most people do, but Cowan has had to make arrests.
In a recent felony case, a commercial business owner started off working with the department but stopped and even began adding to the pile of debris on his property. Cowan obtained a felony arrest warrant for the man, who now faces possible jail time and a fine.
Criminal violations range from a Class C misdemeanor to a state jail felony, a strong deterrent for many.
Cowan pointed out that if a commercial business faces a cleanup bill of $6,000 but a fine of only $250, the owner will take the fine every day. However, they will more likely come into compliance rather than go to jail.
Still, most property owners work with the department without the threat of punishment.
Cowan recalled stepping onto a property without a patch of open ground. It was overwhelming. However, over the weeks during which he kept in contact with the property owner, he began to notice something.
“I started seeing patches of open ground,” he said.
There’s still work to be done, he acknowledged, but he’s seeing progress.
“Work with me,” Cowan added, “and I’ll work with you.”
The cleanup efforts don’t stop at property lines. Nearby residents take note, sometimes addressing issues on their own land.
“We’re hoping it creates a tidal wave effect,” Boshears said.
“We have great citizenry here, a few just need a little nudge,” Cowan added. “I truly like the people and building the relationships with them. I feel like this is really making a difference. You can see the change.“
Contact the Granite Shoals Police Department at 830-598-4818 for more information on its environmental crimes unit.