Mark Harcrow, a 2006 graduate of Palestine High School, started as a patrol officer with the Palestine Police Department in May of 2009, while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Harcrow, 32, rose quickly through the ranks, especially under former Police Chief Andy Harvey, who promoted him to captain and then assistant police chief. Harcrow served as interim police chief after Harvey resigned in October.
Earlier this month, following a strong showing of community support for Harcrow, Palestine City Council members unanimously approved making him the city's permanent police chief.
As chief, Harcrow leads PPD's 37 officers and oversees an annual budget of roughly $4.5 million. He earns a salary of $90,000 a year.
Harcrow played right guard on his high school football team. He is single and enjoys hunting and fishing, as well as listening to classic rock and country music.
Last week, Harcrow sat down with Palestine Herald-Press Editor Jeff Gerritt and talked about the challenges ahead – and why the chief's job is personal to him.
Q. Chief, I've heard you talk about the advantages of becoming police chief in your hometown, but are there also some disadvantages?
A. l've found that it's much more difficult to be a police chief in your hometown. You're held to a different standard. If Joe Blow becomes chief here, he can roll out of town when it's all over and doesn't owe any one anything.
With me, it's different. I know all these people. They're friends, people I love, family – people I've had lifelong relationships with. When these are the people holding me accountable, it's tougher.
I'm responsible for their well-being and quality-of-life. The community petition drive was very flattering, but there's a ton of pressure that comes with that. If there's a crime spree, it's personal. So that's the challenge. That's the stuff I think about at night when I'm in bed, staring at the ceiling.
Q. I know (Former Police Chief) Andy Harvey was a mentor to you. What did you learn from him?
A. One of the things was to acknowledge mistakes: Mess up, fess up, clean up. Managing perception is a big thing. You have to stay on top of the message. If you don't, someone else will do that for you. Another thing was the relationship with the press and our local paper. I used to think the newspaper was an evil monster that we didn't need to talk to. Andy taught me it doesn't have to be that way. I'm sure you'll call us out when we mess up, but if we have an open dialogue and relationship, we can manage that.
Q. Now that you're in the permanent spot, you can put your stamp on the department and set your own agenda. What do you want to get done in the next couple of years?
A. Andy really let me be involved, especially as assistant chief. For the first time since I've been in the department, we've changed chiefs without a feeling that we have to start over from scratch. My goal, really, is just to continue on what we've built since 2017 when Andy came here. We really started over then. There's no need for an overhaul. We're continuing build on what we've done over the past few years.
Q. Including community policing?
A. Yeah – I think that term has been beat to death in recent years. We've about used it up. Something we've talked about lately is “relational policing.” I'm not sure who came up with that term but it's about policing through relationships. It's still community policing, but it takes it a step further. When you go out and play basketball with kids you're building relationships. They know the names of the officers.
Q. What are your biggest challenges ahead?
A. The city is growing. We're building a five-year master plan for the department, as are other city departments. There's a lot of development on the South Loop – all the new apartment complexes coming. It's probably been years, or decades, since Palestine has grown this much. You hear a lot about infrastructure needs that come with growth: lift stations, sewer and water lines. But very rarely do you hear talk about whether are emergency services are prepared for a big increase in activities. We're trying to put a plan together on how we're going to keep up with that. One of the problems will be the budget. Because of COVID, we don't know what that's going to look like. With the growth of this town, a drop in revenue is bad timing. I think the April sales tax report will tell a lot.
Q. With that growth, I assume you'll want to hire more officers, as well as increase their pay.
A. Sure. Now, city ordinance allots us 40 officers, but we're budgeted for only 37. I think the standard used to be that you needed two and a half officers for every 1,000 people.
(Palestine's population is about 19,000. Under that standard, the city would need 47 police officers.)
Q. What are your biggest obstacles in filling positions for officers?
A. Recruiting in law enforcement has gotten so competitive, with signing bonuses and other incentives. In the past, we haven't been able to fill open slots. This isn't Dallas. I don't expect to be able to compete with Tyler, or larger cities like that. But we have cities like Athens (population: 13,000) beating us out on pay. Our starting pay is about $41,800 (a year); Athens is $46,655, plus a $3,000 signing bonus, and they're a smaller city.
Q. How do you overcome that?
A. For a long time, we weren't hiring many people who were from here. When you can tap into people whose family and friends are here – they grew up here – money is not the biggest factor. Instead of going out and recruiting at academies in other places, we can tap into the people we have here. The chances of them leaving as soon as they can for more money are less.
Q. And hometown hiring helps with your relational policing, right?
A. Exactly. That's a fallout of hiring people who know people. They build relationships – they probably have the relationships even before they're an officer.
Q. How does the diversity of the Palestine Police Department compare with the city's diversity?
A. We have 37 officers, including two female officers – one a captain and another a corporal. They're both supervisors. We have three Hispanic and three African American officers, plus another who is in the process of being hired.
Q. So, in a city that's roughly 25 percent African American and 25 percent Latino, you have about 8 percent of each on the police force. Sounds like you have some work to do.
A. Yeah. It's important, anywhere, that departments represent the population they serve. That's Criminal Justice 101. If we can reflect the percentages of the population – that's where we would like to be.
Traditionally, we haven't had a lot of interest from minority communities. We had no minorities in our department at one point. Now it's growing. We're seeing an uptick of minorities applying to become police officers.
We're not where we need to be, but we're not going to fix it overnight. The outreach we've done and the mentality that Andy brought here has helped.
Q. Here, and everywhere else in the country, there's a certain amount of mistrust of the police in African American and Latino communities. How do you change that?
A. The proof is in the pudding. If I tell you that you can trust us, and then the agency acts in another manner, then why would you trust us? The way we handle business is practicing what we preach.
Q. What else is front-and-center?
A. We're doing a policy review. The last one was put in place in 2017. Things change constantly, and it's very important to stay on top of the best practices.
Q. How do you see your relative youth affecting your relationship with the department and community?
A. It's no secret that some of the retired officers see things differently and think that law enforcement should be the way it used to be – and it's not. They came up in a different era. Being younger, I'm probably labeled as part of the new generation of policing. I think most people on the department and in the community see it as a plus.
Q. How unusual is it for the city of Palestine to choose an internal candidate to become chief?
A. When I came to work at the police department, the unspoken assumption was that it was not an option to become chief of police. You might make it to captain, but you're not going to be the chief. The last internal chief was in 1997, and he wasn't from Palestine. He worked his way up the ranks and became chief, but moved on a couple of years later. I think the last Palestine native to become chief was in 1979.
Q. There's been a lot of turnover at the chief position. One of the reasons people wanted you is that you're a hometown guy. People thought you'd stick for a while. Do you plan to be here a long time?
A. I hope so. My family's here. My friends are here. I love it here. I know not everyone feels that way. I have a lot of friends who left as soon as we got out of high school. I want to be here as long as it's right for me to be here. This is home.