Last Saturday at around 5 p.m., Houston police responded to calls of a shooting in progress at Grotto Ristorante, a popular eatery in the city’s Galleria area. On arriving they found two men had been shot, including off-duty New Orleans Police detective Everett Briscoe who died at the scene.
At a Tuesday press conference with Mayor Sylvester Turner and others, local billionaire and Houston Rockets professional basketball team owner Tilman Fertitta announced that he would be adding another $60,000 to the reward for information leading to an arrest, bringing the reward total to $100,000. Fertitta is the owner of the Grotto Ristorante.
The remainder of the funds will be provided by Turner, the Houston division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and Crime Stoppers of both Houston and New Orleans.
Fertitta also pledged to contribute another $1 million to the Houston police to assist in future investigations.
“Everyone in Houston is aware of the dramatic increase in violent crime throughout our city,” said Fertitta, who voiced support for reforms but said violent repeat offenders belonged in prison.
“There are 70,000 felony cases in Harris County alone waiting for their first court appearance. Felonies. I don’t give a damn about misdemeanors; [these are] violent crimes, many for armed robbery.”
Crime Stoppers Houston CEO Rania Mankarious echoed concerns over violent individuals in the community since judges and magistrates are often releasing repeat felony suspects. Her organization reports that at least 127 county residents have been killed by suspects out on multiple bonds over the past two years.
“What is happening in Harris County and the City of Houston is unconscionable,” said Mankarious. “We are systematically and repeatedly letting out, as a practice, the most violent repeat offenders, and it’s wrong.”
Turner promised to put more police officers on the street but also called for more action in the entire criminal justice system in the county and called attention to the case backlog.
“We will work to add more police officers to the street. We will give the City of Houston police department everything that they need to keep this city safe,” said Turner.
Harris County continues to struggle with a criminal case backlog and commissioners court has recently approved temporary courts with appointed visiting judges.
At the time of the Houston press conference, during a public meeting of the county commissioners court Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) noted that a new dashboard being developed by the county currently reflects that the 178th Criminal Court had the highest case clearance rate, while one court, the 338th under Judge Ramona Franklin, had not held a single trial since the onset of the pandemic.
Despite growing alarm over criminal activity, under Judge Lina Hidalgo, earlier this year Harris County took as much as $20 million in what are known as “rollover funds” from the county constables and district attorney’s office.
Hidalgo says they are not defunding police, since these funds are not part of the budget but monies each of the constables and district attorney’s office hold in reserve for unexpected expenses.
Earlier this month in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, commissioners court approved spending $11 million on two new programs to address rising crime that will be functions of the county health department. The Holistic Alternative Responder Team (HART) would allow some 911 calls to be routed to public health staff instead of law enforcement, while the Gun Violence Interruption Program will provide mental health and other services to those thought to be at risk of participating in gun violence.
Ramsey earlier this summer asked for the county to consider putting an additional 50 police officers on patrol, but Hidalgo asked County Administrator David Berry to analyze the costs and effectiveness. During Tuesday’s meeting, Berry said the cost would be around $5 million per year but he did not recommend moving forward since he said projected revenues would not cover the cost.
During one of many heated exchanges between commissioners and the county judge on Tuesday, Ramsey also asked why some budget transfers were not made public on the agenda. Explaining he had received a memo that he had found “odd,” he said he wanted to understand what items were placed publicly on the budget and which were not.
Hidalgo revealed that the expenditure in question was to provide a security detail for her, which she said was necessary due to threats she had received. The cost of Hidalgo’s security was not provided, and she accused Ramsey of trying to politicize her need for safety.
“I was prepared to discuss this generically, and certainly I share your concerns about security, your security, our security,” said Ramsey.
After describing an incident last week in which one of his neighbors was surrounded and fatally shot while picking up dinner for his family, Ramsey pushed back on the accusation that he was politicizing Hidalgo’s security detail costs.
“I’m concerned about our security, security for the neighborhoods, so that is the number one issue on the table today, is crime and security. My question related to this is simply process related. What other issues do not end up on the agenda?”
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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.