County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) announced the “Harris County Safe” proposal at a press conference Tuesday morning.
“Even though crime is up, the good news is that the violent crime and the violent crime increase is concentrated in particular communities within our county,” said Hidalgo.
Hailed by Hidalgo as a “precision policing” initiative, the county will spend up to $2.6 million to provide 96 additional officers on patrol per day. The patrols will operate in seven neighborhoods with the highest crime rates but only in the unincorporated portions of the county which do not have overlap with a city police force. The plan does not call for the hiring of additional deputies, but will fund overtime pay for existing officers for 120 days.
Hidalgo and Garcia, both of whom are up for re-election in 2022, noted that the initiative is part of a “holistic” approach to crime. Other measures have included spending $11 million on new programs administered by the county health department and $50 million on a program to address crime “through environmental design” that adds streetlights, sidewalks, and trees to high crime neighborhoods.
While emphatically stating that the program does not institute a “zero tolerance policy,” documentation from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) notes that deputies will “focus on self-initiated activity and increased traffic stops.”
Increased policing activities in New York City in the 1990s, sometimes known as “stop and frisk,” were associated with significant reductions in crime, but were later decried as racist since large percentages of people stopped were members of ethnic minorities.
Hidalgo said that Harris County’s initiative would include data collection and analysis to ensure that there would not be racial disparities, but Professor Alan Dettlaff of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work took to social media to decry the plan.
“Any ‘policing program’ that uses ‘analytics’ is inherently racist due to how these data are constructed,” wrote Detlaff. “This will only lead to increased disparities and further racist outcomes at the hands of the police.”
A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas declined to comment since they had not had time to review the Harris County Safe initiative.
Hidalgo said in addition to providing more police visibility as a deterrent, deputies will prioritize arrests of “repeat violent offenders,” and seek to engage with the local community.
HCSO Assistant Chief Mike Lee noted that many of the violent offenders are out on bond.
For the past few years, criminal court judges in the county have increasingly released habitual violent felony suspects on reduced bond amounts or on personal recognizance (PR) bonds.
According to Crime Stoppers Victims Advocate Andy Kahan, over the past few years there have been at least 154 known homicide victims in which the suspect was out on multiple felony or PR bonds at the time.
“What would make this initiative even better, would be to take the time to find out why these repeat violent offenders were back in the community,” Kahan told The Texan.
“The bigger question to me is what happens afterwards when these repeat violent defendants are then arrested and charged with another crime? Are we going to continue to play the same cycle over and over again?”
Democrats on the commissioners’ court have routinely dismissed concern over judges and magistrates setting low bail as a factor in elevated crime rates, but recently began to focus attention on bail bond companies that post bond but allow suspects to make minimal down payments and service charges.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Garcia also noted that the county was attempting to address crime by providing assistance to low-income communities. He also tied the crime problem to economic pressures.
“Throughout my life experiences, we’ve had various economic downturns,” said Garcia. “In every one of those economic downturns, crime has been one of the major outputs of those downturns.”
Although violent crime has spiked again in 2021 with the county documenting at least 550 homicides since January, reports from both the Texas Department of Public Safety and the district attorney’s office document an upward trend that began in 2019 or earlier.
Earlier this year, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) had requested adding 50 patrol officers to county law enforcement, but County Administrator David Berry said he did not think there would be revenue to cover the expense.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the commissioners’ court, Ramsey noted that the ideas contained in the Harris County Safe proposal came from the constables and requested that the sheriff’s office work closely with constables in implementation.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) also expressed concern that the report from the sheriff’s office did not reference the county’s eight constables. A report from the county’s controversial consultant PFM Consulting Group recently urged eliminating constables in favor of centralized law enforcement under control of the sheriff’s office.
A spokesperson for the Harris County Deputies Organization, which is suing the county over dangerous working conditions at jail facilities, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the new program since they say HCSO is already understaffed.
“Where are you going to get the people?” asked Dave Batton. “It’s a band-aid on essentially a mortal wound. It’s the wrong kind of triage. We should be looking at hiring more officers, putting more people in investigations.”
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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.