“The Research Center is the first data reporting center of its kind, and it has a clearly defined purpose to accurately report on crime trends and public safety data, so the public has a transparent view of the criminal justice system in Harris County,” said Sydney Zuiker, manager of Crime Stoppers’ Safe Community Program at a Tuesday press conference.
The program will track violent crime trends from 2015 to the present to identify changes since the implementation of both official and informal changes to bail bond policies in the county. Zuiker said objectives also included identifying crime hotspots by city districts and county precincts.
Additionally, Crime Stoppers will track court proceedings and provide the public with lists of each criminal court judge and magistrate when applicable, identify the number of cases processed by each court, and include information on how COVID-19 restrictions have impacted the process.
Zuiker added that the group would also research and report on specialized issues such as the number of defendants charged with Capital Murder or Aggravated Robbery released on personal recognizance (PR) or low bonds and the number of those defendants who went on to commit new crimes after release.
“We believe every single community member is entitled to clear, accurate, and unbiased data about the factors affecting their safety,” said Zuiker.
Crime Stoppers recently identified more than 150 people killed in Harris County who had been murdered by suspects out on multiple bonds or PR bonds over the past few years.
Several Harris County commissioners and constables also attended the press conference.
Constable Mark Herman (R-Pct. 4) presented a $10,000 donation on behalf of the county’s constables to Crime Stoppers to support the group’s Tip Line Program and work to address rising crime.
“The majority of the tips that we get for crimes, that the community helps us solve these crimes, is through Crime Stoppers,” said Herman.
Herman also expressed frustration over the number of cases dismissed by the county’s judges after law enforcement and the district attorney’s office had submitted charges. He explained to The Texan that he would be working to refile charges in at least 100 cases involving more serious felony crimes such as Aggravated Assault.
On learning the county did not have a process for notifying complainants when judges dismissed charges, Herman said his office was working to send out form letters to complainants that would include the names of judges dismissing charges without explanation.
A non-profit organization, Crime Stoppers was founded four decades ago to promote public safety and help solve crime, but on Tuesday CEO Rania Mankarious lamented the politicization of criminal justice issues.
“Unfortunately, today, the very notion of ‘public safety’ has become political and has created strain within our communities,” said Mankarious. “There is no longer an absolute agreement on what ‘public safety’ means and the real victims of crime are being forgotten.”
While county commissioners Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) joined Tuesday’s press conference, last year Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo rejected working with Crime Stoppers since she said the group had “an axe to grind.”
“Crime Stoppers has an axe to grind? Really? Crime Stoppers is the truth teller; Crime Stoppers is the entity out there telling the stories,” said Ramsey who thanked the organization for their work on bond reform.
In answer to questions about county resources for crime prevention, Garcia touted his allocation of $1 million from his own budget for a pilot “Shot Spotter” program, a surveillance system that notifies law enforcement when shots have been fired.
Both Ramsey and Cagle emphasized the need to include additional law enforcement resources in next year’s budget.
“We need to increase in the middle of this pandemic the number of boots that we have on the ground so that we can engage in community policing,” said Cagle. “That’s not a popular thing these days, and I don’t know that I have the votes to get it done, but I’m going to be an advocate.”
Over the past year, Hidalgo has rejected calls for additional permanent patrol officers, but approved $11 million for violence interruption programs under the health department and $50 million to fight crime through “environmental design.”
Harris County began holding hearings this week in preparation for crafting a 2022 “short fiscal year” budget for March through September. Criminal justice issues are expected to draw additional public attention as the region continues to grapple with rising crime.
Other Harris County constables in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference included Alan Rosen, Ted Heap, Phil Sandlin, Silvia Trevino, and Sherman Eagleton, as well as representatives from the Houston Police Department Central Station.
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Holly Hansen is a 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.