Coffee City is a tiny town with a massive police force. The remote berg — outside Tyler, Texas, in the northeast of the state — counts fewer than 250 residents, but it employs more than 50 cops. The force is reportedly five times larger than any other small-town police force in Texas, and Coffee City raked in more than $1 million in court fees from tickets last year.
This outsized police force was recently identified in an investigation by Houston CBS affiliate KHOU, which uncovered an alarming hiring pattern by Chief of Police JohnJay Portillo. The ranks of the Coffee City police have ballooned with bad-apple cops, who had reportedly received demotions and even dishonorable discharges from other jurisdictions for a litany of egregious behavior, including aggravated assault and endangering a child. Portillo defended his vetting of these officers, insisting that many of the cops had just gotten themselves on the wrong side of department politics and had been “retaliated” against.
Now, the Coffee City government has put Portillo on the shelf, pending an internal investigation. Mayor Jeff Blackstone said in a statement this week that he and the city council “felt it necessary for us to place Chief Portillo on a 30 thirty-day suspension.” A state agency, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, is also reportedly investigating the Coffee City force.
Portillo did not respond to Rolling Stone’s interview requests. Despite its more than ample staffing, no one at the Coffee City police department answered the phone either, nor did Mayor Blackstone respond to a request for comment.
Chief Portillo has legal issues beyond his handling of the force. KHOU reports he failed to disclose a 2004 DWI arrest — for which he was a no-show in court and a warrant remains outstanding — when applying to his current post. Portillo told the TV station that the omission was unintentional, insisting he was “not not being truthful,” adding: “I just put down everything that was in my mind when I filled out my application.”
Coffee City has a reputation as a speed trap. Call city government offices, and the first option on the phone tree states: “For questions about a ticket, or to reach the court, press 1.” Remarkably, the KHOU investigation found that several officers on the Coffee City force do not even work in Coffee City. Instead, they work in a division in Houston, 200 miles to the south, tracking down big-city residents with outstanding traffic fines or for a failure to appear in Coffee City court.
Several Coffee City cops also reportedly work private security jobs in the Houston area, Portillo included. (Texas law allows full-time police to hire themselves out for extra cash.) But Portillo reportedly clashed with an elected Houston constable after a February incident in which he felt he didn’t get proper backup when he called for help at the apartment complex where he works security. He’s seen on a deputy’s body camera cussing the constable as a “fucking pussy.” Portillo is also seen vowing to mess up the constable’s election prospects.
Portillo himself is a past candidate for a Houston constable post, and has a website for a 2024 campaign, as well. On the site he brags of expanding the Coffee City force from “1 full-time Chief and 2 part-time officers to 8 full-time officers and 57 reserve officers.”
Seeking voter support, the now-suspended Coffee City chief touts his “professionalism and empathy” and vows he’ll “make integrity the hallmark” of his elected service. “I am committed to the highest performance standards, ethical conduct and truthfulness in all relationships with the public,” he adds.