In an unusual show of bipartisanship, elected officials and citizens from both political parties and multiple communities turned out in force Tuesday to show opposition to a study proposed by Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2).
Garcia requested that the commissioners’ court discuss and possibly act to fund “a study of contracts held by constables under the Harris County Contract Patrol Program.”
Garcia’s proposal specifically referred to potential savings that could be realized “by eliminating the ability of constables to enter into the contracts.”
Under the program, neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations across the county contract with one of the eight county constable offices to provide extra patrols and law enforcement, but may also choose to contract with the Sheriff’s office.
While the contracts provide additional law enforcement patrols to neighborhoods, one criticism has been that a contracting community may pay only 70 to 80 percent of the cost of the extra patrols, with the remainder paid by county tax revenues.
Garcia’s proposal prompted Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) to request a supplemental agenda item saying if such a study were approved it should include all law enforcement agencies in the county and “not discriminate against the valued and hardworking constables of Harris County.”
But by Tuesday morning, more than 100 individuals had signed up to testify on the issue before the commissioners’ court.
All eight county constables, representing both elected Democrats and Republicans, attended to express intense opposition to the plan and at times voicing accusations against Garcia.
Precinct 3 Constable Sherman Eagleton (D) said he had tried repeatedly to set up a meeting with Garcia to discuss improvements, but that Garcia had never met with him. Eagleton also accused Garcia of trying to undermine the Precinct 3 Constable offices and telling staff not to use constables to work security anymore.
Constable May Walker (D-Precinct 7) said that the commissioners should have consulted with the constables before launching a study, especially since constables had closer ties with the community.
“The most important thing for the Constable is the community; it’s not about us, we can come and we can go, but that community is gonna be there so we have to pay attention to what the community [wants].”
Constable Ted Heap (R-Precinct 5) noted that the programs add as many as 1,015 officers to the county, and that 99 percent of calls constables answered were outside of contracts.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D) also expressed support for the program saying “In no way should the contract program ever go away. It’s a force multiplier for their agencies, for ours as well.”
Multiple representatives from various neighborhoods, homeowners’ associations, and other groups also spoke on the important role the contract programs play in ensuring public safety.
Although county constables are not a part of the Houston Police Officers Union, former HPOU President Ray Hunt spoke in support of constables and noted that many people saw the issue in light of the county’s actions on bail and criminal justice reform, which he called a major failure.
“When someone can be released on a burglary of a motor vehicle, having never seen a judge and that judge never looking at their 18 prior convictions? That’s a major problem. And those people who walk out and find their window bashed in know it.”
Even before Hunt testified, Garcia stated he would be asking Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) to pull his proposal.
Regarding constable employees’ concerns over job losses if the contract program were eliminated, Garcia said, “I regret that this item and the way that it was communicated has caused that kind of concern, that wasn’t the intent…and for that reason I’ll be asking the judge to pull this.”
Despite Garcia’s request to table the proposal, testimony continued long into the afternoon.
Tomaro Bell, Chairman of Public Safety and Health for the Super Neighborhoods Alliance said that she lived in a neighborhood that couldn’t afford to participate, but she strongly supported the constables and the program. “These community policing’s matter.”
Referring to Garcia’s resolution, Bell said, “I don’t want to table, I want to shred it. This does not need to come back up again.”
Commissioner Cagle submitted for the record several letters in support of the constables and contract programs from both Democrat and Republican State Representatives, and offered a new resolution.
“We move that we affirm the Constable contract program, and will not seek to study to eliminate or terminate the Constable or Sheriff contract program.”
Commissioners unanimously voted to accept Cagle’s motion.
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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.