Criminal JusticeLocal NewsHouston, Harris County Leaders Respond to Surging Homicide Rates

County Judge Hidalgo spotlighted the demolition of a vacant lot, while Mayor Turner announced a new initiative that includes overtime pay for police officers and a $1 million gun buy-back program.
February 3, 2022
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January proved to be a violent month for the Houston region with the city reporting at least 47 homicides since the first of 2022, and more assaults on law enforcement including the high-profile murder of a Harris County constable corporal.    

The public outcry over what many perceive as an increasingly dangerous region has prompted a response from both city and county leaders in recent days.

On Wednesday morning, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo held a press conference along with Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to showcase one of several projects that are part of the county’s $50 million initiative to fight crime by reducing blight.

Hidalgo spoke from a property where workers were about to bulldoze a fire-ravaged apartment building that has stood vacant for two years and has allegedly been used by drug dealers in the crime “hotspot” neighborhood.

“If there’s a silver bullet solution or a magic wand we could wave, we would wave it, but there isn’t,” said Hidalgo. “It takes hard work, it takes learning from our communities, it takes learning from our mistakes — our decades of failed solutions which only lead to mass incarceration.”

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Highlighting the county’s alternative programs, some of which are administered through the health department, Gonzalez said, “We’re never going to arrest our way out of crime.”

Gonzalez, who was last year nominated to head up U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has often focused on social issues and earlier in the week sent a letter to all sheriff’s office employees instructing them to share preferred pronouns in introductions.

While the county has balked at adding permanent additional officers, last year the commissioners court did approve $2.6 million in overtime pay for sheriff’s deputies to patrol high crime areas.

Hidalgo and Ellis both characterized the homicide increase as a problem of gun violence.

“One of the biggest contributors to crime in our city and our county is everybody having access to a gun,” said Ellis. “We have to operate under the rules that are given to us under the legislature. It is too easy for people to get access to a gun.”

Later Wednesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also held a press conference and called the situation a public health crisis. He announced a new city crime initiative that will include $5.7 million for overtime pay for city police officers to add 125 patrols per day to crime hotspots, and another $1.9 million for 15 additional park rangers for three years. 

Additionally, the “One Safe Houston” plan will provide $1 million for a gun buy-back program.

“There is no question there are too many guns on our streets,” said Turner, who added the plan would remove “illegal or unwanted” firearms. 

Houston City Council member and chair of the public safety committee Abbie Kamin referenced the state’s “insane gun laws,” and urged community members to remove firearms from homes “that may be laying around,” and to stop leaving guns in cars where they might be stolen.

State Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston) also accused the state of not properly funding the criminal justice system and said the creation of one new court in Harris County was not enough.

During the final days of the third special session of the Texas Legislature in 2021, Johnson had introduced legislation that would have added three new criminal courts to the county, but it came too late to garner a hearing in committee. 

The Houston plan, which comes with a price tag of $44 million, also calls for the police department to work with the district attorney’s office to prioritize prosecution of the 200 most violent offenders, train workers for a violence interruption program, and fund a re-entry program for the formerly incarcerated and for youth outreach programs. The mayor also called for ordinances that would require security cameras in certain businesses, and make bail bond companies charge defendants at least 10 percent of a court-determined total bail bond. 

In response to reporters’ questions about why the city would not add to the existing 5,200 Houston police officers patrolling the city of more than 2.3 million, a defensive Turner said there would be a new cadet class graduating in March and that there had been many retirements.  

Last week former Houston City Councilmember Greg Travis hosted a town hall that included several misdemeanor court judges, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Texas Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and representatives from Crime Stoppers Houston.

During that event, Ogg decried the criminal court judges who were releasing repeat violent offenders on bonds, and Andy Kahan of Crime Stoppers noted that there were more than 100 defendants charged with capital murder out on bond in Harris County. 

While the Texas Constitution requires that most defendants be given bond, suspects charged with capital murder may be held, and judges may revoke and raise bonds. Kahan has noted that in a recent case, Harris County Judge Natalia Cornelio lowered suspect Jonathan Vera’s capital murder bond from $250,000 to $50,000 and released him. Vera has now been charged in the manslaughter death of Summer Chester.

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Holly Hansen

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.