Local NewsHarris County to Spend $50 Million to Address Crime Through ‘Environmental Design’

The county will invest in planting trees, adding streetlights and sidewalks, and cleaning up vacant lots in a program designed to reduce the dramatic rise in violent crime.
October 13, 2021
Harris County commissioners unanimously approved a modified proposal to spend $50 million intended to fight crime by planting trees, cleaning up vacant lots, adding streetlights, and constructing sidewalks. 

County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) announced the proposal at a Tuesday morning press conference during which they acknowledged rising crime but avoided mention of the county’s controversial bail practices.

“All across America violent crime has increased, and sadly Harris County has not been immune to that trend,” said Hidalgo. “It’s no secret what’s driving that crime trend here and across America. It is the economic impact of COVID-19 and of course the gun violence epidemic.” 

Hidalgo also stated that since she and Garcia had taken office in 2019, all law enforcement budgets had increased and that the county made investments in innovative programs to reduce crime.

Garcia, formerly Harris County sheriff, said that communities needed to be proud of where they live. 

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“If you want people to respect government, government has got to do things for the community when they do not expect it and this is exactly what we are doing.”

In support of the “Clean Streets, Safe Neighborhoods” initiative, which initially included providing air conditioning, a report provided to commissioners cited several public policy studies including one from the left-leaning Niskanen Center arguing that there is “promising evidence” for controlling crime by providing trees, green spaces, street lights, improving vacant lots, and “reducing physical disorder.” 

Hidalgo also cited a 2019 report from the right-leaning Manhattan Institute for Policy Research stating that cities can curb the incidence of crime by abating blighted vacant land.

Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) expressed support for most of the proposal noting that commissioners had already undertaken neighborhood improvement plans, especially in Precinct 3 where multiple blighted areas had been transformed into “pocket parks.”

“This is another one of those episodes to where somebody somewhere else came up with an idea, packaged it with a new bow and a ribbon, but it’s something that has been going on in Harris County for quite awhile,” said Cagle.

Cagle did request removal of specific plans to provide air conditioning for residents but approved the motion instructing the county administrator to explore initiatives to “reduce heat” in county areas where “concentrations of gun violence are among the highest in the county.”

Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), whose request for 50 additional patrol officers to help combat crime were set aside as likely unaffordable earlier this year, posed questions about from where the funding would come.

“We’re going to look at a multitude of sources here,” said county administrator David Berry who suggested since these were one-time expenditures, funds might be drawn from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

“There’s great institutional knowledge from the precincts,” said Ramsey, who noted it takes about $1 million to provide street lighting for a neighborhood of 4,000 people. 

Cagle suggested that the program coordinate with projects already underway and invest in all four county precincts, but Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct.1) objected to dividing the spending four ways since he believed the county government had historically neglected some areas. Cagle countered that much of his precinct included unincorporated areas that only depended on county government, while other parts of the county had overlapping services from Houston and other cities.

Initiatives that incorporate the “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) draw on some elements of the “Broken Windows” policy that successfully reduced crime in New York City in the 1990s. The policy relied on police enforcement to address petty crime and public disorder but was also premised on reducing blight such as graffiti, broken windows, and community vandalism of the environment.

Although Hidalgo attributed the county’s crime to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019 Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct.1) cited a “staggering increase” in both domestic violence and homicides as a reason to give paid leave to employees who were victims of crime. 

Additionally, last month District Attorney Kim Ogg submitted a report to commissioners tying the county’s rise in crime to bail reform policies adopted both formally and informally by criminal court judges and magistrates. 

Despite the unanimous vote in favor of the “Clean Streets, Safe Neighborhoods initiative,” some observers criticized Hidalgo and Garcia for not addressing more urgent crime-related issues.

Former Commissioner Jack Morman, a Republican who is running to reclaim the Precinct 2 seat from Garcia, accused the county of pushing “feel good projects” instead of more resources for law enforcement.

“Taken individually, neighborhood improvements have merit and can enhance any community. I know this,” said Morman. “But in the face of rising crime and unacceptable murder rates claiming fresh victims every day pouring resources into the men and women who stand between families and criminals is the way to go here. This is a war.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) said the $50 million “Clean Streets” plan would not stop what he called “crime bombs” going off in county neighborhoods.

“Harris County judges must stop releasing violent criminals back to the streets over and over again it makes our citizens unsafe,” wrote Bettencourt on social media.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Garcia also presented a resolution calling on the state legislature to add more criminal district courts for Harris County to address the backlog of more than 100,000 criminal cases. 

Although the resolution also passed unanimously, Ellis attributed the backlog to one-time events and expressed a preference for programs that would reduce the jail population.

“I think we ought to be cautious with the permanent expansion of our justice system.”

Ellis offered a friendly amendment calling on the state to cover all costs associated with new courts in the county. 

The proposal authorizes Berry to immediately begin exploring funding options and possible projects in conjunction with other county departments.

Correction: A previous version of the article misstated the precinct number that Morman is running in. We regret the error.


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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional 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.

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