In Houston on Tuesday, newly elected Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) held the first of what he says will be a series of town hall events with law enforcement, local community leaders, and residents to engage in discussion and solicit input on how to tackle public safety issues plaguing the region.
In his introduction, Ramsey cited statistics from the Texas Department of Public Safety showing the crime trends began shifting upward in 2019 and noted that last year nearly 500 people were murdered in the county. He expressed concern over bail practices and a new push to release jail inmates, but especially lamented the unwillingness of some elected officials and local media to discuss the issue.
“We need to take a serious look at our safety in Harris County. We must give a voice to many of the underserved neighborhoods who are most impacted by these policies,” said Ramsey. “No one’s worried about that single mom with two babies in an underserved neighborhood. She’s afraid tonight.”
“This is unacceptable.”
The panel of speakers included Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, Pastor Willie Davis, Andy Kahan of Crime Stoppers Houston, and Houston City Council member Edward Pollard. Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman participated remotely, and the event was broadcast on Facebook Live.
Heap described how the various law enforcement agencies worked together and highlighted a growing problem with the recruitment and retention of officers. While emphasizing that two major components of reducing crime are greater visibility and faster response times from police, he argued for better communication between officials, law enforcement, and the public.
“In law enforcement, we can only respond to what we know, which means that we have to open up the dialogue and communication not only between city and county…but we have to open up the communication between the public and the law enforcement,” said Heap. “We’re there to serve you, it may sound like a cliché, but we do a heck of a lot better when we have some input or some knowledge of what is going on in your community.”
Herman, who has established a strong social media presence to inform the public, last week unveiled a new smartphone app “C4NOW!” that allows residents to receive notifications of traffic and criminal activity in the area, and report issues in their own neighborhoods.
“When I first got in office in 2015, the first thing that I realized is that a lot of the newspapers out here quit publishing crime fighting stories; they quit telling the people what’s going on.”
Herman said the newly created app had been downloaded by more than 20,000 users within three days of launch.
Kahan, director of victim services and advocacy for Crime Stoppers Houston, described his project tracking data on murders allegedly committed by suspects out on multiple felony bonds or personal recognizance bonds and noted that over the past two years there have been 90 victims, most recently including an 11-year old boy. Kahan lamented the lack of media attention to the problem and the refusal of the Houston Chronicle to publish op-eds he has written, and decried county Judge Lina Hidalgo’s refusal to work with him on the issue since she said his group had “an axe to grind.”
“We have no clue as to how many defendants who have been released on felony bond have been charged with additional crimes. I would think we would want to know that.”
He also noted that most of the victims would classify as having minority status.
Pastor Davis echoed Kahan’s concerns about the impact to minority communities. Having lived and worked in both Houston and Chicago, Davis said public safety must be a top priority, otherwise programs will be ineffective, including those designed to help minorities.
“Crime don’t discriminate, but crime will segregate,” said Davis. “If this crime keeps going up like it’s doing, you’re going to have a segregated city; Chicago…is the most segregated city in the United States…the reason is crime, which is tied to economics, which ties to education, which ties to everything.”
Ramsey suggested successful solutions in the county, with its diverse minority-majority demographic, could serve as a model for the nation in addressing local public safety.
Pollard described the high crime issues in District J, root causes such as lack of employment and education, and the lack of an adequate police force, noting that despite being the fourth largest city in the nation, Houston has only about 5,300 police officers to cover 600 square miles, compared to Chicago’s 12,000 officers.
In addition to facilitating better communication and collaboration with multiple agencies, Pollard has also established the District J Patrol, which he called a new, modern approach to community policing.
Using city funds allotted to the district, the District J Patrol brings additional Houston police officers into local neighborhoods to engage in visible patrolling, often on all-terrain vehicles that allow for more immediate interactions with residents and the ability to enter areas not easily accessible by traditional patrol cars. The program also has a website that provides an additional channel for residents to communicate with law enforcement.
“That is something that we hope will be a model going forward for the city at large and for other council districts, is to be able to increase presence and increase communications within their neighborhood. And not only increase presence but make sure that the communication is coming directly from the residents.”
Saying he believes the problems will require new creative solutions and additional funding, Pollard said he was proud the Houston City Council had refused demands to “defund police,” and had instead allocated additional funds while seeking innovative approaches.
Panelists and audience members expressed concern over bail policies, and Ramsey noted that this week a federal judge is considering a request to release nearly 2,000 inmates of the county’s jail system due to COVID-19 concerns.
Ramsey said among other strategies, he plans to consider programs like the District J Patrol, better officer training and retention, and creating a county “crime” dashboard to provide transparency to the public.
Panelists also reminded residents and other leaders that public safety should be a non-partisan issue.
“If I could make one statement about this whole night…I beg you to do everything you can to keep politics out of law enforcement,” said Heap. “It has no place in law enforcement.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.