“It is unbelievable to sit and watch the evening news of people being pistol-whipped at the retail store,” said Whitmire. “They don’t want to go back to work. It’s impacting every element of our society, of working and living in Harris County.”
While Whitmire, who has chaired the state senate’s criminal justice committee since 1993, assured law enforcement they had public support, he added, “unfortunately, it appears no one is listening at the county that has the ability to make a difference.”
Earlier this year, on the recommendation of County Administrator David Berry, commissioners approved a budget that included just 18 percent of what law enforcement agencies had requested.
This week, after District Attorney Kim Ogg made a sixth appearance at the commissioners court, the county’s four commissioners voted to approve restoring $7.5 million to her department, but county Judge Lina Hidalgo abstained, calling Ogg’s demands “political theater.”
Cuevas noted that between 2019 and 2021, murders in the region had increased from 330 per year to 615 per year. He also described insufficient staffing levels for the county jail and to manage daily calls, adding that there had been 1.5 million calls for service in Harris County last year.
“We only have 56 district deputies on any given day to run that many calls. How in the hell are we supposed to protect you?” asked Cuevas. “Give us the resources we need to do our job.”
Cuevas expressed frustration with Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) for not providing more law enforcement funding during the uptick in crime while funding alternative programs like the $50 million spent last year on a program to reduce crime by cleaning vacant lots, and adding sidewalks and trees to some neighborhoods.
Even though Cuevas said the sheriff’s department had asked for more resources, Hidalgo opposed the added expenditure.
“According to Ms. Hidalgo, it’s all political theater,” said Cuevas.
He also criticized elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez for not attending the commissioners court in person to advocate for more law enforcement resources.
“Ask for the resources and let them know we need a pay raise,” said Cuevas.
Hidalgo has defended budgeting allocations noting that funding for public safety has significantly increased under her leadership. In February, commissioners approved a budget that provided a 2 percent salary increase for all county employees and an additional 3 percent increase for non-ranking sheriff’s deputies using funds borrowed from county road bonds. While rejecting requests for additional staff, the county last year provided $2.6 million for overtime pay for extra patrols.
Cuevas also accused Universal Services Director Gen. Rick Noriega of taking a vacation during the recent computer database outage that halted the processing of arrested suspects for several days, which HCDO asserts led to dangerous conditions for staff who were managing excessive numbers of criminal defendants at the processing center. Saying Noriega was unqualified, Cuevas called on the county to fire him.
Whitmire, who is planning to run for Houston mayor in 2023, also vowed that the state legislature would act to require a 10 percent minimum down payment for bonds next year, but urged the county’s bail bond board to reconsider implementing a rule immediately.
Regarding Harris County, Whitmire urged the county not only to provide additional resources to law enforcement but to do more to address the court case backlog with measures that would include night and weekend courts. He also suggested making crimes such as stealing catalytic converters a federal crime since the federal courts were functioning more quickly.
“We have a lot of work to do at every level of government in Harris County: the city, the county, the state, and even the federal government,” said Whitmire.
“The system is broken, and we’ve all got to join hands and say enough is enough.”
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.